The Senate Judiciary Committee is still moving toward its much-anticipated showdown over immigrant visas and a path to legal status as it weighs a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But Monday, one highlight of the committee hearing was immigrant detention.
Committee members voted on amendments into the evening. But a handful of those addressed during the session concerned the solitary confinement of detainees, the fate of children of detained parents, and transparency:
- An amendment approved by voice vote from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would restrict the use of solitary confinement in detention centers, among other guideleines prohibiting its use among minors under 18, and strictly limiting its use when detainees have mental health problems. The New York Times reported recently that as many as 300 detainees are held in solitary confinement around the country on any given day, many well past the 15 days that experts say could lead to psychological harm.
- An amendment approved 18-0 from a bipartisan group led by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) would allow immigrant parents held in detention centers to make necessary phone calls to arrange for their children's care, and to remain informed of what steps agencies take to care for their children if no one else can. It would also require government agencies to be trained to deal with these cases. The idea is to prevent the separations that have taken place in many cases when detained children enter the foster care system; an investigation in 2011 found that more than 5,000 detained immigrants' children were in foster care. Some have been adopted, resulting in bitter custody battles.
- An amendment approved by voice vote from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) would require more transparency and record-keeping in the detention system. Federal agencies responsible for detaining immigrants would have to keep comprehensive records and produce periodic reports on detainees, including how long people are held. These reports would be available to the public without the need to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Other detention-related amendments being considered include one from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would strike a provision in the Senate bill calling for an expansion of detention alternatives, such as electronic monitoring.
The federal immigrant detention system, much of which is operated by private contractors, has continued to face problems in spite of an overhaul announced in 2009. Over the past several years, scandals have erupted over the incarceration of families with children, the solitary confinement of detainees, and deaths in custody. Just recently, two detainees committed suicide within three days in a contracted detention center in Arizona.
See a complete list of today's amendments voted on here.