A group of national and local women’s rights advocates are calling for greater oversight in Arizona’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
The National Organization for Women, along with previously detained women, legal advocates, social service providers, and Arizona Democratic State Senator Victoria Steele, convened at the state Capitol on December 8 for a press conference to push lawmakers to rectify conditions they say have a deleterious impact on women and girls within ICE custody.
The gathering centered around the national organization’s visit earlier this week to Eloy Detention Center, a private prison facility run by CoreCivic that houses many migrants through a contract with the federal immigration agency.
“We had seven ICE agents who escorted us, and told us the party line,” said Toni Van Pelt, NOW’s president. “And then we had the opportunity to meet with about 35 to 40 women afterwards to verify. We asked them the things we were told by ICE about their experience, and of course find that these things were not true.”
Van Pelt said that women spoke about the lights in the facility remaining on at all hours, preventing rest; rancid food and water “full of parasites”; and menstruating women only having access to pads during the weekdays – leaving them to make do with toilet paper or make do with blood on their underwear on the weekends.
“In essence, they are treated as prisoners, stripped of their dignity and their agency,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt did not provide the names of the ICE agents.
CoreCivic has previously denied many of these claims, which were similar to those of a report released last month by the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, and Puente Human Rights Movement about alleged conditions inside Eloy Detention Center.
The private prison facility has stated that the Pinal County Health Department inspects Eloy’s food service department unannounced one to three times a year to ensure compliance with the county’s environmental health code; its water is subject to monthly Arizona Department of Environmental Quality testing; and that “indelibly stained” undergarments are discarded, in accordance with ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards requirements.
Pinal County Health Department has checked the facility twice this year, once in June, finding a "mold-like substance" in kitchen machinery, and in October, finding no violations. The department didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.
ICE's PBNDS also mandates that detention staff replenish personal hygiene supplies "as needed." The federal agency has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Speakers also mentioned national reports of detention’s disproportionate impact on migrant women and children – from the Trump administration tracking adolescent girls’ periods, to policies that specifically limit claims to asylum on the basis of domestic violence, to the 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse of immigrant children the Justice Department has received in the last four years.
“It really affects women in a lot of ways people don’t understand,” stated Erika Andiola, chief of advocacy at RAICES, a Texas-based nonprofit which provides legal services to immigrants. She said her own mother came to the United States fleeing an abusive husband in Mexico. “A lot of people actually come to the United States because they are women, because they are fleeing violence in their own homes, and their government doesn’t do anything about that, or because they are transgender women.“
In response to these alleged conditions in U.S. detention centers, the advocates asked legislators to support two proposed Congressional bills. The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, a piece of legislation proposed in June that currently has no Arizona representatives among its 38 co-sponsors, would create non-negotiable standards for the treatment of children in federal immigration custody, including preventing family separation, requiring youth receive three meals a day, and mandating pediatric health evaluations for children shortly after they arrive in custody.
The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which has four Democratic Arizona representatives among its 140 co-sponsors, would stop the Trump administration’s efforts to indefinitely detain immigrants, and also address conditions for migrants in detention by ending the use of private prisons and county jails to house immigrants, setting national standards for remaining detention centers, and mandating greater oversight of these facilities.
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“I would ask Senator McSally to sign on the bill going through the Senate to give basic care to women and children who are being detained,” said Suzanne Hug, whose family was held in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. “We need to treat people with respect and with dignity no matter what their circumstance is. Because that’s who we are as United States citizens.”
The press conference is part of NOW’s national campaign for a universal bill of rights for people detained in migrant detention centers.
According to a 2011 ACLU report, an estimated 3,000 migrants are detained in immigration facilities on any given day in Arizona – accounting for 10 percent of the total population of detained migrants nationwide.
Neither proposed Congressional bill has moved past the point of introduction in the House or Senate, respectively.