An Interview

Largely missing in the current immigration policy debate is the reality that the legal treatment of immigrants is first and foremost a human rights issue. Altogether lost in that debate is that their treatment also has important implications for the rights of U.S. citizens. What Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Georgia and President of the National Lawyers Guild, makes absolutely clear in this January 24th interview is that the freedom of U.S. citizens and immigrants are inextricably linked.

Hickman: I want to ask about one case in particular: Mark Daniel Lyttle. The facts in the suit case read like a Kafkaesque nightmare. Despite being a U.S. citizen born in North Carolina, despite having mental and emotional problems, and speaking no Spanish, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deports him to Mexico. He is shoved across the border in a prison jumpsuit with three dollars in his pocket and then spends the next three months either homeless or jailed in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. How and why did the ACLU take up his cause?

Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Georgia and President of the National Lawyers Guild
Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Georgia and President of the National Lawyers Guild.

Shahshahani: We learned about the case through media coverage. The facts were particularly shocking. We are not a direct service provider. Generally we get involved in impact litigation, the kind of case that has effects beyond the immediate case. So, often you will see us challenging unconstitutional legislation, for example our challenge to BH 87, Georgia’s 2011 anti-immigrant law. We want our litigation to result in policy change. Mark Lyttle’s case was emblematic of the lack of due process that plagues the immigration detention and deportation system.

Hickman: What was the outcome of Mark Lyttle’s case?
Shahshahani: He received a monetary settlement. But beyond that, we hope this case sheds some light on this country’s abusive detention and deportation system and helps illustrate the need to move towards a more just and humane immigration system.

Hickman: What explains abuse as heinous as that experienced by Mark Lyttle? Is this what happens when a bureaucracy cannot recognize, admit or correct mistakes?
Shahshahani: I think one issue is the racial profiling inherent in the system. It is a really scary thought for people of color to be caught in the system; the burden is on them to prove their citizenship. The other problem is the lack of access to counsel, to legal representation. Whereas in the criminal justice system in most cases you are entitled to an attorney if you are indigent, in the immigration system there is no right to a court appointed attorney. If you are indigent, you are left to your own devices. There are a small number of organizations that provide legal representation to indigent immigrants in custody but they have very limited resources and can take only a limited number of cases. As an immigrant, you often have to navigate the system by yourself. Immigration laws are very complicated, which adds to the difficulties.

Hickman: Are there other cases comparable to that of Mark Lyttle?
Shahshahani: Yes. There was a case handled by the ACLU of Southern California a few years ago with similar facts. The ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project are also currently litigating Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, a class action in California on behalf of hundreds of detained individuals with mental disabilities who face similar problems to those Mark encountered.
I should mention that one problem is the lack of adequate safeguards to ensure that U.S. citizens are not deported. Also there is a lack of enforceable standards for the treatment of people in detention. There are guidelines but they can’t be enforced in court.

Hickman: No standards for treatment in custody?
Shahshahani: It is important for people to realize the numbers of deaths of people in detention centers; many of them could have been easily prevented. Since 2003, at least 24 people have died in immigration detention facilities operated by CCA alone. Incredibly, there have been three deaths in detention here in Georgia in recent years. Two of the deaths were at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin and one was at the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville. For example, a 39 year old man from Mexico named Roberto Medina Martinez died in detention at Stewart in March 2009. We brought a challenge on behalf of his widow, asserting that his death was the result of government negligence.

Hickman: What was the negligence?
Shahshahani: The physician at the facility failed to review the medical intake examination. An investigation after the fact showed that she had failed to do that in thousands of cases. Stewart is the largest immigration detention center in the U.S., with more than 1,750 men detained there on a daily basis. What was also concerning was that the facility was without a physician from April 2009, a month after the death of Mr. Martinez, to the summer of 2012. Not even one doctor on staff.

Hickman: Social scientists know that mortality in custody tends to be higher than in…
Shahshahani: Definitely irresponsible of government given the population of Stewart. There needs to be more than one doctor there at any one time.

Hickman: Have news sources missed anything else about this story?
Shahshahani: Yes. Lack of adequate food, hygiene and medical care, and also the isolation of these remote facilities. In 2009, we set out to document the conditions at the Georgia detention centers on a systematic basis. We interviewed 68 immigrants in detention, as well as their attorneys and family members. Our report, Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia, was meant to shine a light on the conditions in Georgia specifically.
We found particularly troubling a work program operated by the Corrections Corporation of America at Stewart and North Georgia paying only one to three dollars a day for work that the corporation would have had to hire regularly paid employees for. So the corporation is making a lot of money. The cruelty of the situation is that the immigrants really need the money in order to supplement their diet, because the food served at the facility is inadequate. They also need to buy phone cards, often at exorbitant prices, to remain in contact with their family members and attorneys.
Corrections Corporation of America claims that the program is voluntary but we spoke with immigrants who stated that it was mandatory. When they went on a work stoppage, they were threatened with being put into ‘the hole,’ into the solitary confinement unit. When we toured the facility as human rights observers, the company refused to allow us to see the solitary confinement unit. It raises a red flag for us immediately.

Hickman: What do you think about public reaction to these problems?
Shahshahani: A lot of individuals are not aware of the scale of the problem. We now have more than 400,000 people in detention annually. On a daily basis it is more than 30,000. We need to start treating detention as the last resort, not constantly throw immigrants in jail-like conditions – including individuals who have been here for years, may have only committed minor violations, and may have U.S. citizens and relatives as spouses or children.
Forty-nine percent of those detained in the U.S. are in private prisons. The Corrections Corporation of America is the largest owner and operator of private prisons in America and its role in passage of Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 70 is documented.

Hickman: So are we seeing an example of moral hazard?
Shahshahani: Yes. You know Arizona’s law was the model for Georgia’s law. The motive is to get as many people in detention as possible to increase corporate profits.

Image: From
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.