Yesterday morning, Barack Obama signed executive orders to end the CIA’s secret overseas prisons, ban coercive interrogations (read “torture”), and close Guantanamo Bay within a year. In just his second full day in office, Obama made good on one of his campaign promises, saying that “our ideals give us the strength and moral high ground” to combat terrorism. (Shane, Scott. New York Times) The whole world must have breathed a sigh of relief to see the United States moving back towards its role as a leader in human rights.
Since 2002, this small base in Cuba has housed detainees, many of whom were held without charges, representation, or many basic human rights. As Vince Walker famously said when Gandhi’s followers were brutally attacked and killed by the British following the 1930 salt march, “Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today.” (http://lisahendrix.com/2008/06/). As the United States has attempted to encourage countries like Iran, China, and North Korea to cease their violations of human rights, our exhortations have sounded hollow when Guantanamo Bay was in full operation just miles from Florida.
All Americans should applaud this bold move by Obama to move the United States back into its place an international leader. But this must only be the beginning. Within our borders, detention centers are cropping up in every state. Texas is building new “immigrant processing” centers every year, and this for-profit business is rapidly expanding. As the United States continues to balk on comprehensive immigration reform, these containment camps flourish while immigrants languish. Few know where they are, even fewer know the name of a local lawyer who can represent them. Many will sit for months in cold dark cells, some for years. In the last 6 years, from 2002 to 2008, immigrants detained in like centers have skyrocketed from under 21,000 to more than 31,000. Disabled immigrants and those with mental health issues aren’t being served, and often their conditions are worsening steadily. As Equal Justice Fellow at Advocacy Health Services of LA Greg Pleasants, “All protections that exist in other areas of the law (for mentally and developmentally disabled individuals) do not exist for these respondents.” (Tillman, Laura. Brownsville Herald). Just last week, federal immigration officials investigating the tragic death of Chinese comuter engineer Hiu Lui Ng in Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility of Central Falls, R.I, revealed that he had been denied treatment and his cancer and fractured spine had been undiagnosed, leading to his agonizing death on August 6, 2008. (Bernstein, Nina).
Thankfully, some changes have already begun to have a positive effect. Since unaccompanied minors were removed from adult detention centers and switched from DHS (Department of Homeland Security) jurisdiction to that of Health and Human Services, their care has substantially increased and they are being better served. With Guantanamo Bay closed and the United States human rights record looking better, we must continue to encourage our administration to take positive steps to eradicate human rights abuses within this nation. Our immigration system must move towards a day when immigrants are not criminals or numbers but people, families, lives, souls. Please don’t stop at Cuba, Mr. Obama.