A group of Democratic members of Congress is calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate cases at a private South Florida detention center for illegal immigrants after complaints of undocumented detainees being held for minor offenses that merited release and a lack of sufficient medical care.
One detainee was reportedly returned to her holding area on the same day as she had emergency ovarian surgery, according to allegations in the letter.
"This is not just an immigration issue, it's a human rights issue," said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat where the detention center is located and who is leading the effort.
Twenty-six House members signed Deutch's letter to ICE Director John Morton, urging a "case-by-case" review of each individual detainee at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Fla.
The letter, at least in part, was spawned after several undocumented activists with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance engineered their own arrests so they could enter the facility and document cases. Deutch said the lawmakers received allegations from groups, such as the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, that came with enough significant documentation to warrant an investigation.
The Broward Transitional Center is a minimum-security civil detention facility that has capacity for 700 people facing low-level criminal cases. It is owned by the GEO Group Inc., a Florida company that specializes in correctional and residential treatment services.
ICE confirmed receipt of the Congress members' Sept. 13 letter and said officials will respond directly to the members. ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias said the agency could not comment on specific cases but is reviewing allegations about the woman who allegedly had emergency ovarian surgery.
Officials at the GEO Group said the center has always provided quality service in a safe and secure environment under ICE oversight and meets standards set by the American Correctional Association and other leading national accreditation agencies.
"It's important to emphasize that GEO has no involvement in decisions related to lengths of stay at the Broward Transition Center," the company said in a statement.
Last year, the Obama administration issued a directive, known as the Morton memo, stating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement should consider several criteria, including whether undocumented detainees have been in the United States since childhood or were arrested for minor offenses, in weighing whether to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" for dropping low-priority deportation cases.
The directive has come under extensive criticism. This summer, the American Immigration Lawyers Association called the initiative a failure because only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of cases reviewed were granted any kind of reprieve.
Looking to further highlight the issue, several undocumented activists got themselves detained in August so they could enter the Broward Transitional Center and interview detainees. One of the activists, 25-year-old Viridiana Martinez with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, said they found dozens of people who are eligible for release under Obama's policies, including some caught up in alleged traffic violations, but who remain in the jail "month after month after month."
"Based on the Morton memo, these are people who should not be deported," Martinez said. "I met a woman who was not even driving. She was just a passenger in a car and she was detained for three months. She had no record, nothing."
Yglesias, the ICE spokesman, said the National Immigrant Youth Alliance activists "have no way of knowing the complete criminal and immigration histories of any of the subjects they have informally interviewed."
He said ICE exercises discretion on "a case-by-case basis," based on resources and state priorities, including public safety, border security and the integrity of the U.S. immigration system.
Rep. Luis Guitierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said that after hearing cases of low-priority individuals being detained and others with health issues not receiving adequate attention, he signed the letter because it was time to review the "whole notion" of jailing and deporting low-priority cases like those detained at Broward.
"These are not criminals and we should not be wasting resources deporting a lot of them in the first place because most are assets to the communities in which they live," he said.
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