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Commentary: Immigrant detainees deserve to be treated with dignity

Orange County has more long-term immigration detention facilities than any other county in the United States. Costing taxpayers more than $170 million since 2010, these three facilities located in Santa Ana, Orange and an unincorporated area near Irvine operate outside of any binding, uniform laws that ensure humane treatment. The Dignity Not Detention Act, a bill that passed the California State Senate on June 1, would change that and ensure our tax dollars are not used to perpetrate abuse.

I moved to Orange County a few years ago because I wanted to help alleviate the suffering of people in immigration detention. Every day, approximately 1,000 asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and other migrants with longstanding community ties are held in immigration detention in Orange County.

None of these individuals are serving time for a crime. In fact, because immigration detention is technically a civil form of confinement, many of the safeguards of the criminal justice system do not apply. For example, people in immigration detention have no right to a court-appointed attorney, a free phone call, or a speedy trial. While many migrants are transferred away from family and friends, a majority lack attorneys.

Many people are denied adequate medical care, and human rights abuses have contributed to 161 reported deaths in immigration detention nationally. A recent federal government investigation of the death of Raul Ernesto Morales-Ramos found a “critical lapse in care” and that “access to and continuity of care were impeded” at Theo Lacy Facility, an Orange County jail that functions as an immigration detention facility.


The state has acknowledged the lack of humane treatment standards for people in immigration detention, and in April, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced the “Dignity Not Detention Act (S.B. 1289).” Co-sponsored by my organization, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the bill has cleared the state Senate and will go to the Assembly floor in August.

The bill would require all immigration detention facilities in California to uphold humane treatment standards and allow people to sue if their rights are violated. The bill also would prohibit municipalities from contracting with for-profit immigration detention facilities, such as GEO Group, which runs one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country in our neighboring San Bernardino County.

The introduction of the Dignity Not Detention Act has already contributed to a pledge by the Democratic Party in its 2016 platform to “close private prisons and detention centers.”

However, the California State Sheriffs’ Assn. has come out against the bill because it says that the bill will open up local governments to thousands of new lawsuits from people in immigration detention.


This line of reasoning is shameful. County sheriff’s departments, such as Orange, are obligated under their current contracts with the federal government to follow the basic standards that will be codified by Lara’s bill. So if county sheriff’s departments are complying with their duties, they should applaud Lara. If Orange County cannot comply, then it should stop detaining immigrants.

California has always been a leader in welcoming immigrants and defending rights. In 2015, we passed the Immigrants Shape California Legislative Package, expanding the rights of immigrants in our state and protecting the most marginalized in our communities. The Dignity Not Detention Act builds on this legacy and helps close a massive gap in the mistreatment of immigrants in our detention facilities.

No matter your position on immigration, I think most of us can agree that every human being deserves to be treated with respect. The Dignity Not Detention Act simply reminds municipalities that choose to contract with the federal government for immigration detention that California is a state that values dignity for all.


Costa Mesa resident CHRISTINA FIALHO is an attorney and co-executive director of the national nonprofit, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).