Immigrants fleeing gang violence in Central America have languished in federal detention centers – some for almost a year now – after traveling across the U.S southern border by the thousands last summer. The majority of the detainees are women and children.
After harsh criticism over prison-like conditions, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced new policy changes this week that could help improve conditions for the immigrants at the detentions centers.
Atlanta immigration attorney Joe Rosen has offered legal services to some of the detainees at the federal facilities.
Rosen said during an interview on “A Closer Look” that these detention centers are like a “minimum-security prison camp.”
“It’s like being in jail,” he said.
Before the policy changes this week, a federal judge had already issued a tentative decision – ruling the centers violated standards for children.
Rosen traveled to a detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico to offer free legal counsel to detainees.
“Particularly disheartening is when you’re in a situation like that and you’re an attorney and you’re sitting there with your clients. They’re six- and eight- and 10-year-old kids and they essentially have been put in jail by the U.S. government,” he said.
“Barbed wire, armed guards and it’s all going to a for-profit prison system that, incredibly, heavily lobbies the U.S. government to maintain people in detention,” Rosen added.
The policy changes ICE announced this week include ending the use of detainment as a means to deter illegal immigrants, providing better access to legal counsel, improving conditions at the centers, and granting a speedier case review process.
Rosen said he discovered during the course of a week of doing volunteer work at an immigrant detention center that a majority of the detainees were not leaving their homes over economic reasons.
“They’re fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries,” he explained. “Without fail, the 50 to 60 people I worked with in a week, everyone is fleeing either gang violence, domestic violence, family violence and the governments down there in Guatemala and Honduras are just unable to protect them or unwilling to protect them.”
“Before the attorneys started volunteering and going there on their own, it was almost a 90 to 100 percent return rate of these folks back to their home countries. Once the attorneys got there, I think, the first 10 asylum cases that were tried ... in every one of them that was tried it was found that the folks did deserve asylum and could remain in the U.S.”
Rosen doesn’t believe the new ICE policy changes will significantly improve conditions at the federal facilities. “There’s simply no way to do that. It’s simply an unlawful, inhumane and unnecessary way to detain children and mothers.”
WABE's Johnny Kauffman, Rose Scott, and Jim Burress contributed to this story.