DHS’s New Immigration Detention Watchdog Opposes Immigration Detention

Like ‘putting an arsonist in charge of conducting oversight of the U.S. Forest Service’

By George Fishman on May 16, 2024

Michelle Brané


  • DHS recently announced the appointment of Michelle Brané as the immigration detention ombudsman, heading an office dedicated to becoming “an objective, credible resource for those impacted by immigration detention”. In case you were wondering, that means the detainees, not the American people.
  • Immigration detention is necessary because, as the Supreme Court has noted, Congress “had before it evidence that one of the major causes of the ... failure to remove deportable criminal aliens was the ... failure to detain those aliens during their deportation proceedings”, and as the House Committee on Homeland Security concluded earlier this year, “continuously detained aliens have historically almost always been repatriated, while nondetained aliens have rarely been”, and “a lack of consequences, such as detention, incentivizes illegal immigration”.
  • Brané is reported to be an anti-ICE activist “who has called ICE’s activities ‘abusive’ and wants to limit the agency’s powers of detention”, and asserts that removing illegal aliens before they commit crimes sounds like “a police state”.
  • It is no wonder that the Center for Immigration Studies’ Jon Feere says her appointment is akin to “putting an arsonist in charge of conducting oversight of the U.S. Forest Service” and worries that “she’ll use her new authority to undermine ICE detention efforts, which will come in the form of excessive audits and releases of illegal aliens based on unsupported and phony complaints”.
  • In 2012, the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee held a hearing on the Obama administration’s new “DHS Immigration Detention Standards”. The hearing was titled “Holiday on ICE” because, as Committee Chairman Lamar Smith explained, “ICE has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants. While we would all like to be upgraded, we do not have the luxury of billing American taxpayers or making Federal law enforcement agencies our concierge.” Smith concluded that “The Obama Administration should put the interests of American taxpayers ahead of illegal and criminal immigrants.”
  • Brané testified at the hearing that DHS needs to “commit[] to creating a civil system of [immigration] detention that is used as a last resort ... implementing effective tools for detaining only where appropriate and necessary”, failing to acknowledge or care that in many instances, such civil detention is mandated by federal statute. Such disregard of congressional detention mandates was in large measure the basis for the first article of impeachment against DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced the appointment of Michelle Brané as the immigration detention ombudsman (DO). What, you might ask, is the DO? As DHS explains:

The Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman (OIDO) was established by Congress in 2019 (Sec. 106 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act) to resolve problems related to and improve conditions of individuals and families in immigration detention ... .

[It has] expanded its presence with staff throughout the country, developed its case management and detention oversight processes, built out operational capabilities, and created a strategic plan to achieve its vision to become an objective, credible resource for those impacted by immigration detention. [Emphasis added.]

Wait a second, “those impacted by immigration detention”? Does DHS mean the American taxpayers who have to pay for it, or the victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens placed into removal proceedings? Of course not. DHS means the detainees themselves, aliens for whom DHS is seeking removal orders from immigration judges or who have already been ordered removed.

That might give you a sense of OIDO’s self-perceived mission. My colleague Jon Feere has written that it “operates more as an opponent of ICE’s [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s] mission — a role already filled by CRCL [DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties]”. Feere recommends that:

Congress should ... consider eliminating the OIDO office altogether, as it is a costly redundancy. Despite not showing any value, it has exploded in size without justification. In 2020, there were four government staffers running OIDO. But the office quickly expanded, as the OIDO director explained in his annual report, noting that “by the end of 2022, we had grown to 60 Federal personnel, along with dozens of contractors supporting our mission.” How has ICE detention benefitted from this?...

OIDO explains it “is committed to providing a persistent presence in immigration detention facilities nationwide[”] ... . OIDO exists as yet another avenue for complaint gathering, despite the fact that detainees already have about a half-dozen ways to file complaints. It turns out that most of these complaints are not legitimate, and ICE jumps to resolve them quickly. There’s no need for “persistent presence” by a new office unless the goal is to frustrate ICE’s mission and encourage jails to stop working with ICE.

Michelle Brané — This (Om)Bud’s Not For You!

Feere added that “An effort aimed at frustrating ICE’s ability to detain illegal aliens has been underway for years, and the parties involved include Congress, activist groups, judges, and now Biden administration political appointees to ICE.” Michelle Brané seems to be one such Biden administration political appointee.

DHS has proudly proclaimed that:

Michelle has more than 25 years’ experience working on immigration and human rights issues. She served as the Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission for almost 15 years, where she oversaw a team of advocates leading on groundbreaking issues such as the protection of unaccompanied children, application of the Prison Rape Elimination Standards to adults and minors in immigration custody, family detention and separation, and access to asylum at U.S. borders.

Jennie Taer reported in the New York Post that:

The Biden administration has appointed an ... anti ... ICE ... activist, who advocates pulling funding from the agency, to scrutinize the detention of illegal immigrants.

Michelle Brané ... has called ICE’s activities “abusive” and wants to limit the agency’s powers of detention ... .

Brané has been outspoken in her stance, writing in one 2019 post on X that fees for immigration applications are used to “supplement ICE’s abusive enforcement.”

“ICE already gets billions of taxpayer money to detain asylum seekers. They do not need more,” Brané wrote.

When Trump’s ICE director said in 2017 “we shouldn’t wait” for illegal immigrants to commit crimes in order to deport them, Brané wrote on X his comments sound like those of “a police state to me.”

The Need for Detention

How dare DHS detain aliens who are subject to removal? Well, as the Supreme Court explained in 2003 in Demore v. Kim:

[Among other mandatory detention provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), section 236(c)] mandates detention during removal proceedings for a limited class of deportable aliens — including those convicted of an aggravated felony. Congress adopted this provision against a backdrop of wholesale failure by the INS to deal with increasing rates of criminal activity by aliens ... .

The agency's near-total inability to remove deportable criminal aliens imposed more than a monetary cost on the Nation ... . [D]eportable criminal aliens who remained in the United States often committed more crimes before being removed. One 1986 study showed that, after criminal aliens were identified as deportable, 77% were arrested at least once more and 45% — nearly half — were arrested multiple times before their deportation proceedings even began ... .

Congress also had before it evidence that one of the major causes of the INS' failure to remove deportable criminal aliens was the agency's failure to detain those aliens during their deportation proceedings ... .

Once released, more than 20% of deportable criminal aliens failed to appear for their removal hearings ... . As the dissent explains, [a later] Vera [Institute of Justice] study found ... that one out of four criminal aliens released on bond absconded prior to the completion of his removal proceedings. ... [This] is even more striking than the one-in-five flight rate reflected in the evidence before Congress when it adopted [§ 236(c)]. The Vera Institute study strongly supports Congress' concern that, even with individualized screening, releasing deportable criminal aliens on bond would lead to an unacceptable rate of flight.

As I have reported, and as the House Committee on Homeland Security’s report on the impeachment resolution against DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also noted, data released by Mayorkas’ DHS lays out the case for the detention of aliens subject to removal:

Of aliens encountered at the southern border in fiscal year 2013, 98.4 percent of those who were continuously detained have been repatriated (mostly removed or returned) as of December 31, 2021, as have only 6.9 percent of those who were sometimes detained and 15.1 percent of those who were never detained. Of those continuously detained, only 0.7 percent have an unexecuted removal order, while 23.2 percent of those sometimes detained and 12.6 percent of those never detained have unexecuted orders.

Data released by Mayorkas’ DHS for aliens encountered at the southern border between fiscal years 2014-2019 show similar outcomes. As the Committee on Homeland Security’s report concluded, “continuously detained aliens have historically almost always been repatriated, while nondetained aliens have rarely been”.

Additionally, the committee’s report stated, “in mandating detention at the border, Congress understood that a lack of consequences, such as detention, incentivizes illegal immigration”. As U.S. District Court Judge T. Kent Wetherell II of the Northern District of Florida concluded last year in Florida v. United States:

[DHS had] effectively incentivized [the surge in illegal migration under DHS Secretary Mayorkas] by establishing policies and practices that all-but-guaranteed that the vast majority of aliens arriving at the Southwest Border who were not excluded under the Title 42 Order would not be detained and would instead be quickly released into the country where they would be allowed to stay (often for five years or more) while their asylum claims were processed or their removal proceedings ran their course.

What Harm Can a DO Do?

But what harm can Michelle Brané really do? Jennie Taer reported that:

  • [G]iven [Michelle Brané’s] previous statements about ICE enforcement and against detention, former ICE officials believe she’s unfit for her current role to audit such action.

  • Jon Feere, who was ICE chief of staff during the Trump administration, told The Post Brané’s appointment is akin to “putting an arsonist in charge of conducting oversight of the US Forest Service.”

    “My guess is that she’ll use her new authority to undermine ICE detention efforts, which will come in the form of excessive audits and releases of illegal aliens based on unsupported and phony complaints,” Feere said.

    ICE has been ordered to perform more audits, inspecting one detention facility 92 times last year, the agency’s Chief of Staff, Michael Lumpkin, recently said.

    “That’s ridiculous and certainly not intended to make things function more efficiently. But with an ombudsman who fundamentally opposes ICE’s and DHS’s mission, things will only get worse,” Feere claimed of the audits.

    Former ICE field office director John Fabbricatore told The Post ICE’s decision to tap Brané for the role “raises critical questions about the direction and priorities of ICE under the current administration.”

    “Ms. Brane’s previous assertions that efforts by ICE to preemptively arrest illegal aliens to prevent further crimes equate to a ‘police state’ underscores a problematic perspective for someone about to hold a significant position in a law enforcement agency,” Fabbricatore, who’s now running for Congress to represent Colorado’s sixth district, said.

    “This isn’t the first hire at DHS that has raised concerns and there seems to be a growing number of activists and advocates of an open-border, anti-ICE philosophy.”

And Feere has written that:

  • Anti-border activists in Congress and the executive branch are working hard to make detention of illegal aliens difficult or impossible though burdensome audits designed to discourage local jails from cooperating with ... ICE ... .

  • [A]s ICE makes the [detention] standards more and more demanding, it’s entirely likely that more and more jails will no longer cooperate with ICE. The last things sheriffs need is half-baked narratives about how they’re allegedly treating illegal aliens poorly by not perfectly meeting overdemanding federal detention standards.

    As part of the detention process, all ICE detention space is subject to audits. These audits are conducted by multiple offices: ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight ... the DHS Office of Inspector General ... CRCL ... and DHS’s new Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman ... . These offices do not coordinate their visits and, as a result, inundate detention facilities, including the jail space of sheriffs rented by ICE, with endless audits and inspections.

Feere added:

  • The Utah Sheriffs’ Association explained the problem further in its own statement:

    Throughout the years the Utah sheriffs who have held contracts with I.C.E. have been subjected to an unending list of federal “strings” that are attached. These include more than 700 pages of regulations that are not based upon constitutional rights or legal standards based on case law. Many of these absurd standards give special treatment and privileges to I.C.E. detainees that are far above and beyond what our own incarcerated citizens receive ... . I.C.E. policy and practice have made it simply impossible for Utah’s sheriffs to house I.C.E. detainees.

  • Between the audits and the constantly expanding detention standards, the procedures required by ICE have become burdensome enough that it’s “just come to the point where it’s really difficult for us to keep up with it”, said [Todd] Bahensky [director of Utah’s Hall County Department of Corrections].

Feere concluded that:

If there is any hope of removing illegal aliens from the country, Congress must immediately address a subversive effort designed to undermine detention and ICE’s mission. This will require Congress to consider doing a few things:

  1. Defund and eliminate the newly formed and redundant Office of Immigration Detention Ombudsman (OIDO)
  2. Require audits of ICE detention space to be coordinated and limited to no more than one audit every 18 months.

“Holiday on ICE”

Regarding absurd detention standards, on March 28, 2012, when I was chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, the subcommittee held a hearing on the then-new DHS immigration detention standards. We titled the hearing “Holiday on ICE: The New Department of Homeland Security Immigration Detention Standards”. The Democrats invited, yes, Michelle Brané to be their witness. But more on that later.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in his opening statement that:

This hearing is entitled, ‘‘Holiday on ICE,’’ because ICE has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants. While we would all like to be upgraded, we do not have the luxury of billing American taxpayers or making Federal law enforcement agencies our concierge.

The Obama Administration should put the interests of American taxpayers ahead of illegal and criminal immigrants.

Smith explained that “on February 28th, 2012, [ICE] released about 400 pages of new Performance-Based National Detention Standards. But the Administration’s new detention manual reads more like hospitality guidelines for illegal immigrants.”

As to the derivation of the standards, Smith said:

According to the preface, the detention standards supposedly ‘‘were drafted with the input of many ICE personnel across the Nation, as well as the perspectives of non-governmental organizations.’’

But the preface fails to disclose that the union that represents ICE detention officers, who are among those most affected by these new standards, was not a part of a process that will have a large impact on their own safety. Neither were advocates for immigration law enforcement or advocates for American taxpayers who will have to pay for the new standards.

Instead, ICE consulted with those who appeared to consist primarily of pro-illegal immigrant groups when it drafted the new detention standards.

As to the standards themselves, Smith stated that:

Under this Administration, detention looks more like recess. While funds for American students’ physical education classes are being cut, the new detention standards expand recreation for illegal immigrants. For instance, illegal and criminal immigrants in ICE custody will have options such as soccer, volleyball, and basketball. It would be nice if all American students got those options.

ICE wasted no time in putting their new standards into practice. Immediately following the release of the new detention manual, ICE opened up a new, state-of-the-art detention facility in Karnes City, Texas. The new detention facility was built with specifications set by ICE, which involved limited public scrutiny and no congressional oversight.

Among the new amenities, the Karnes City facility contains a library with free Internet access, cable TV, an indoor gym with basketball courts, soccer fields, and sand, and that is for beach volleyball. Instead of guards, unarmed ‘‘resident advisors’’ patrol the grounds ... .

To make matters worse, the new standards expand the complaint process against ICE officers and facilities. It offers numerous avenues for complaints, unlike the Bureau of Prisons, which has a single streamlined process for complaints. Detained illegal immigrants can complain to ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the [DHS] Office of the Inspector General, or [CRCL].

With no protections against false accusations of abuse filed by detainees, and a process biased against ICE agents, the new detention standards could subject the agency and its employees to constant and frivolous lawsuits.

The Outrage

Not all present that day shared Smith’s perspective, or his sense of humor (and appreciation of the absurd). John Conyers (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, sent Smith a letter the day prior to the hearing stating that:

I hope we agree that the manner in which we treat immigrants in our detention facilities is not a laughing matter. I urge you to reconsider the title of tomorrow’s hearing and to instead use a title that shows greater respect for the issue and for the people in our custody and care.

At the hearing, Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) stated that:

  • I must respectfully say that I find the premise of today’s hearing to be misguided and, frankly, appalling ... .

  • Rather than welcoming these common sense standards and seeking their implementation at ICE facilities across the Nation, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have claimed that detainees are now being pampered. That assertion does not even pass the laugh test. But nobody should find it amusing.

And Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, emoted that she “was deeply disappointed to learn of the title of this hearing, ‘Holiday on ICE.’ Certainly [aliens who had passed away in DHS detention facilities] would not think that their deaths in custody were any kind of a joke.” She also noted that Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), the chairman of the immigration subcommittee, “called me to say that he regretted the title of this hearing”.

Lofgren continued:

But I do think it is important to take a look at the facility that has been described as kind of a country club, I guess.

We have a couple of pictures, because I think pictures are worth more than a few words. This is, to me, again, there are bunks. It does not look my idea of a plush holiday locale. I mean, this is the new center that has been built ... .

If we could show the next picture. This is the plush recreation yard. You can see the very large fence in back, a rather grim recreation area. It is not where really I would plan to spend my holiday. It is not what I would consider a holiday on ice. And the third and final picture, this is the showers, as you can see. No curtains. Not exactly what I would consider a plush environment.

Lofgren then went for the jugular:

To its credit, th[e Obama] Administration came in, admitted [a] problem, and fundamental change was necessary to prevent unnecessary suffering and death. That is the purpose behind the new detention standards at issue today. ... I do not accept the criticism of the Administration expressed by the Chairman of the full Committee in his press release where he criticizes these detention standards as a hospitality guideline.

I do not think that it is a hospitality guideline to prevent rape of detainees, women who have done nothing wrong, to prevent death and abuse of detainees in custody. I do not think women deserve to be raped. I do not think individuals deserve to be tortured through physical or medical abuse or gross medical neglect. I do not think women deserve to be shackled when they give birth.

Of course, Lofgren had constructed a strawman for electoral purposes, full of melodramatic and purple prose, as evidenced by her next utterance: “Throughout this Congress, we have seen elements of what I think of as sort of a Republican war on immigrants. In today’s hearing, I am afraid we are starting to see where the war meets the Republican war on women.”

But what Smith was complaining about was not rape prevention efforts, necessary medical care, or the lack of shackles on women giving birth. As he explained in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

The Obama administration has made a joke out of federal detention by dramatically expanding rights and privileges to illegal and criminal immigrants in federal custody. While access to necessary and lifesaving medical care should be provided to everyone in federal custody, excessive privileges and questionable services should not be included.

But that is exactly what the Obama administration has done. Under its new detention standards, detainees now have access to libraries with free Internet access, cable TV, an indoor gym with basketball courts, soccer fields, and sand and nets for beach volleyball ... .

The United States prides itself on treating people with the utmost dignity and respect. But the Obama administration has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants. While we would all like to be upgraded, we don’t have the luxury of billing American taxpayers or making federal law enforcement agents our concierge. The Obama administration should put the interests of American taxpayers ahead of those of illegal and criminal immigrants.

Advocacy organizations also piled on the moral indignation and melodramatic and purple prose:

  • The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) issued a press release, titled “AILA Denounces House Hearing; Immigration Detention is No ‘Holiday’”, stating that:

    [“]The name of this hearing, in and of itself, is highly offensive and betrays both a clear lack of regard for the humanity of immigrant detainees, as well as a sense of contempt for basic human rights. To compare being kept in jail to a holiday is preposterous. There is something deeply wrong when a title like this is officially bestowed upon a congressional proceeding,” AILA President Eleanor Pelta commented.

  • Edwidge Danticat wrote in the New York Times that “The flippant title of the hearing shows a blatant disregard for the more than 110 people who have died in immigration custody since 2003.”
  • Roopal Patel wrote for the Brennan Center for Justice that “Smith’s sarcasm insults immigrants and obscures the harrowing conditions detainees face.”
  • Cheryl Little, executive director and co-founder of Americans for Immigrant Justice, said that the title “is particularly offensive and demonstrates serious disregard for the abuses that so many detainees have had to endure. Detention clearly is no joke.”
  • Greg Chen, director of advocacy for AILA, said that “[d]etention is no holiday” and “I think they should be embarrassed to describe people who are deprived of their liberty as if they were on vacation.”
  • Annie Sovcik, advocacy counsel for the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First, stated that “Time spent there is certainly no ‘holiday,’ a notion that seems to escape some members of Congress ... . It’s these kinds of flip references that make you think the Chairman is out of touch with the gravity of what people face in immigration detention." She also wrote that “[It is even more outrageous to know that anti-immigrant zealots like Smith can mock their suffering ... in the halls of Congress.”
  • Erin Gloria Ryan wrote in Jezebel that “The hearing[ was] startling in its insensitivity and tone-deafness.”
  • Physicians for Human Rights found the title “insensitive” and Christy Pujio, director of their asylum program, called it “unconscionable” and believed “[t]he fact that anyone in Congress thinks this is a joke [to be] reprehensible”, noting that “Nobody who has spent even a minute in an immigration detention facility would characterize it as a ‘holiday[.]’”

Edwidge Danticat elaborated on Pujio’s views in the New York Times:

  • The official (and facetious) title of the hearing is “Holiday on ICE,” in reference to the more humane treatment undocumented immigrants should now receive after being picked up by [ICE].

    Mr. Smith ... and members of the ... Subcommittee ... which is holding the hearing, seem to think the United States is too nice to the immigrants it detains. We are being too generous in deciding to give them safe water, an hour a day of recreation, and off-site medical care if they are in danger of dying.

  • Clearly, these new standards are far from luxurious. They simply help protect basic human rights.

  • The “Holiday on ICE” hearing may just be a political stunt, but the message behind it is dangerous; it suggests that the 30,000 vulnerable people in our jails and detention centers should have little right to proper medical care, that their very lives are luxuries, and that it is not our responsibility to protect them.

Again, that was not Smith’s point. As he explained, “access to necessary and lifesaving medical care should be provided to everyone in federal custody” and “[t]he United States prides itself on treating people with the utmost dignity and respect”, but “excessive privileges and questionable services should not” be a part of DHS detention.

Elise Foley wrote in the Huffington Post that:

  • To some Republicans in Congress, U.S. immigration detention facilities sound like resorts ... . In the hearing ... opponents of detention reform said detention centers were becoming like “college campuses” or “Mayberry,” the fictional little town where “The Andy Griffith Show” was set. The title of the hearing, and its message, outraged immigrant rights groups and supporters of detention reform ... .

  • [Rep. Steve] King (R-Iowa) said he stood by the title ... . “I can't think of a more descriptive name for the hearing,” King told HuffPost. “I thought it was right on point.”

Roopal Patel wrote that:

  • Plans to improve these conditions should not be a laughing matter.

  • Chairman ... Lamar Smith ... presided over a hearing called “Holiday on ICE” to mock the Obama administration’s plans to improve immigration detention conditions. Smith jeeringly referred to the minimum standards set earlier this year for medical care, protections from sexual abuse and assault, and access to counsel as “hospitality guidelines.”

  • Rules designed to prevent death, rape, or assault and providing basic medical care are not luxuries. And the absence of those rules is no joke.

Again, not what Smith was getting at.

America’s Voice proclaimed, in a post titled “Women’s Rights Advocates, Immigrant Families Disgusted by Lamar Smith’s Efforts to Play Politics”, that:

  • [A press call today] questioned why House Republicans are making light of such serious issues and the need for reform. On today’s call, Immigration detention experts, women’s rights leaders, and victims of sexual abuse ... expressed outrage that ... Chairman Lamar Smith ... is playing politics with people’s lives.

  • [T]he very title of the hearing makes it clear that Rep. Lamar Smith and his allies have already made up their mind about whether there should be any standards at all. It’s not enough to push to deport record numbers of immigrants — they want to treat them as less than human and make deportation as painful as possible.

  • Said Louise Melling, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the ACLU Center for Liberty, “[T]hose on the Right are turning women’s health care in the immigration context into the latest culture war.[”]

Brian Bennett wrote in the Los Angeles Times that:

  • Republicans in Congress mocked the Obama administration’s plans to improve conditions for immigrants held in county jails and detention facilities Wednesday, saying that a raft of reforms written by [ICE] amounts to coddling lawbreakers.

    In a hearing titled “Holiday on ICE,” Rep. Lamar Smith ... took aim at recent administrative changes designed to improve medical care for detainees, reduce incidents of sexual abuse, increase access to safe water and outdoor recreation, among other reforms.

  • Democrats on the committee took aim at the sarcastic title of the hearing, saying it belittled the serious issue of ICE’s poor track record of ensuring the safety and health of detainees in custody.

Annie Sovcik wrote in an op-ed in The Hill that:

These men and women are not spending their days on “holiday” at a “resort.” If that’s what Rep. Smith and his colleagues think, perhaps they should book their next vacation at one of the following “resorts” that I’ve visited ... .

Detainees don’t have to move anywhere for the entire day or night! They spend 24 hours a day in the same room where they eat, sleep, shower and use the toilet without privacy. Their “outdoor” recreation is in a concrete room off of their pod with light from something that resembles a sky-light.

Chairman Smith calls these standards “hospitality guidelines.” I’m glad he’s not planning my next vacation.

Tim Murphy wrote in Mother Jones that:

[T]he House Committee on the Judiciary convened a hearing on ... the supposedly posh conditions at [DHS’s] immigrant detention centers. The hearing, dubbed “Holiday on ICE” ... focused on the idea that Obama administration rules intended to prevent sexual abuse and inhumane conditions at [ICE] facilities made detention too fancy. “War on Women,” meet “War on Immigrant Women.”

America’s Voice stated that:

  • On Wednesday, the House Immigration Subcommittee will renew and expand its attack on immigrants... .

  • The callousness that House Republicans and their allies are showing toward immigrants detained by our government is galling ... .

  • Smith intends to mock their situation in an attempt to score very cheap political points. Smith has even titled this hearing, “Holiday on ICE.”

    It’s not enough to push to deport as many immigrants as possible — he wants to make the deportation process even more painful and inhumane.

A petition drive was even launched on IPetition to remove Chairman Smith:

Lamar Smith displayed gross errors of judgment when allowing for a hearing on immigration facilities to be titled “Holiday on ICE.” This phrase displayed considerable insensitivity ... . If a leader of a group of influential elected officials ... cannot contain his personal beliefs enough to hold at least his office above such reprehensible violations of ethics and insensitivity, then he should be deemed unfit for office and should step down from his position as Chairman.

Joseph Nevins wrote for the North American Congress on Latin America that “nativist, lock-em-up-and-throw away-the key types like ... Lamar Smith ... complain that ICE is too nice to immigrant detainees”. However, as to keys, Rep. King pointed out at the hearing that “All [detainees] need to do to avoid that ‘holiday on ICE’ is put themselves back in the condition they were in before, which is go to their home country,” querying “Is it true that some of the inmates control the keys to their own cells”, unlike convicted criminals serving their sentences? Yes, they do. As Michael Vastine, director of clinical programs and professor of law at St. Thomas University College of Law, has written, “Asylum seekers hold the keys to their own cell. If they give up on their case, they will be deported and achieve freedom.”

I do have to give the award for the best line to Erin Gloria Ryan: “Because being detained by [ICE] is like going to Disneyland, except instead of going on any of the rides, Mickey Mouse punches you in the face while Goofy takes pictures and then Donald Duck strip searches you.” At least she was trying to be funny.

In this vein, Smith was defended — sort of — by Christopher Brauchli, who wrote in Common Dreams that:

  • It is always refreshing when folks who are charged with dealing with really serious subject matter bring a note of levity into the proceedings so people don't get too depressed. Of course, sometimes the levity may seem out of place but that is a reflection on the observer and not the speaker. The observer should not take things so seriously.

  • By picking up th[e] name [Holiday on Ice] Rep. Smith showed a whimsical streak not always associated with Republican legislators.

Immigration Detention: Brané Freeze?

As I noted, the Democrats invited Michelle Brané to testify at the hearing. She stated that: “These standards for confinement are no hospitality guide”, the “lack of medical care is not a frivolous matter to be cast aside as insignificant”, and “[t]o imply that these very basic protections are a holiday or an undue burden on the agency is simply wrong”. She also asserted in her written testimony that “When detention lasts for extensive periods, recreation is not a luxury but a fundamental human right.” Not unexpected.

But then Brané proclaimed in her written testimony that DHS needed to “commit[] to creating a civil system of detention that is used as a last resort ... implementing effective tools for detaining only where appropriate and necessary ... .” She failed to acknowledge, or care, that in many instances, such civil detention is mandated by federal statute. In fact, such disregard of congressional detention mandates was in large measure the basis for the first article of impeachment against Secretary Mayorkas. For example:

Alejandro N. Mayorkas willfully refused to comply with the detention mandate set forth in section 236(c) of [the INA], requiring that a criminal alien who is inadmissible or deportable on certain criminal and terrorism-related grounds “shall [be] take[n] into custody” when the alien is released from law enforcement custody.

It seems that almost a decade before Alejandro Mayorkas assumed the helm of DHS, Brané was advocating for the same flouting of federal law that led to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives. And one of his first acts post-impeachment has been to select her to lead the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman. Talk about surrounding oneself with bad influences!

Gallegly stated at the hearing that:

[E]ven these changes do not make advocates happy. They have consistently said the new detention facilities are improved, but do not go far enough. What will ever enough be? Numerous statements issued by the advocates make clear they are opposed to the immigration detention in and of itself.

I daresay that this is probably where Brané’s brain is.

Vaughan v. Waters

My colleague Jessica Vaughan was an invited witness for the Republicans at the hearing. She testified that:

  • Of course no one wants to see people mistreated in detention, but this initiative goes too far and is a waste of taxpayer dollars that is motivated not by a genuine need for reform, but as part of a larger strategy to trivialize immigration law enforcement, and minimize the consequences of illegal immigration, which imposes enormous fiscal, economic, national security, and public safety burdens on American communities.

    It is just wrong to ask Americans to foot the bill for the Obama Administration programs that seek to help illegal aliens game the system. For example, as part of this detention reform initiative, DHS has set up hotlines and special advocates for illegal aliens to complain about their treatment. As in any large detention system, abuses occur and are dealt with, but at this point, the people who really need a hotline and a special advocate are the ones who have been the victims of the illegal acts committed by illegal aliens.

    While critics of immigration law enforcement like to call them concentration camps, in reality immigration detention centers have always been softer than other detention centers. With their turf soccer fields, juice bars, satellite television, and polo shirt clad resident advisors, the descriptions of the brand new facility in Karnes City, Texas, sound like more a college campus, not like a temporary holding place for people who have violated U.S. laws.

  • Convicted [of crimes] or not, ICE still has the responsibility to remove [aliens ordered removed]. Putting them in a center with standards that are too soft may put detention officers, resident advisors, and other detainees at risk.

Vaughan concluded her testimony by stating that “[S]ince my time has expired, I will await your questions.” And questions she did receive. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) began her questioning by stating that “I was so intrigued by this title, I thought I would come to see what it means. ‘Holiday on ICE.’’’ Waters then asked Vaughan “Do you know what that means?”

Vaughan’s response contained the only inaccurate statement I have ever heard her make. She stated “It is a reference to a film.” Of course, “Holiday on ICE” is a sly reference to, as Christopher Brauchli noted in Common Dreams, “the popular ice-skating group of that name that tours the world and features really good ice skaters”! I’d claim that Vaughan’s egregious pop culture foul was a result of confusion with the blockbuster Frozen, but that film wasn’t released until a year and a half later! Vaughan also unfortunately started a chain of misinformation, as Elise Foley reported that the hearing’s title was “a punny reference to an ice skating movie and [ICE]”. Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, said that the hearing’s title “sounds like an Ice-Capade show.” Closer, yet also incorrect — the Ice Capades was a competitor of Holiday on ICE! Though, I guess the hearing could have been titled “ICE Capades”.

In any event, Vaughan then stated that “I believe it means that is a reference to the public perceptions of what some of the conditions may be in some of these facilities.”

Waters then said that “I am not aware of it. I have not heard this kind of discussion.” And she asked Vaughan, “Could you describe to me what is meant by that? What conditions are you talking about?”

Vaughan responded that “Well, I cannot speak to what went into the naming of the hearing. I have seen some accounts in news media reports, and I have also visited a facility myself. So, I have a reasonable sense of what the conditions are.” Well, of course, Vaughan could not speak to what went into the naming of the hearing. After all, she thought it was based on a Holiday on ICE movie!

The exchange continued:

Ms. WATERS. What did you see?

Ms. VAUGHAN. Pardon me?

Ms. WATERS. What did you see when you visited a facility?

Ms. VAUGHAN. What I saw was a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. This was a facility that ICE leased space in from a county detention center up in the northeast where the detainees had pretty free access within the facility and access to each other. They had meals that were brought in by a woman who cooked them in her home. What I saw, it was a pretty well-rounded meal of breaded chicken, mixed vegetables, and some mashed potatoes. They were on a first name basis with the officers who were in charge of security at the facility. Most of them actually we were told were requesting to be housed in that facility rather than being sent to places that were closer to where their families were, I think because it was smaller and a little bit different type of setting.

They accepted their detention because they knew that they were in the country illegally, and they were awaiting their removal.

Ms. WATERS. Yeah, but they had no choice. They had been detained, is that right?

Ms. VAUGHAN. Right. Oh, I am sure they would rather not be.

Ms. WATERS. They were not there voluntarily.

Ms. VAUGHAN. No, but they also knew that the reason for their detention was because they were here in violation of U.S. law.

Ms. WATERS. Well, but I want to talk about the ‘‘Holiday on ICE’’ and the conditions that this title refers to. And so, you had people who were relaxed. That means they were not screaming, or crying, or running around, or fighting, or anything, but they were just ordinarily calm people who happened to be detained. Is that correct?

Ms. VAUGHAN. Well, most of them were in there for drug violations.

Ms. WATERS. Could you describe to me what you think would be wrong with being relaxed and a little bit sane? Is something wrong with that?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Ms. VAUGHAN. No, though this is a number of years before the new standards were put into place.

Ms. WATERS. They had access to each other. What do you mean, families, that the mother, the father, children could talk to each other?

Ms. VAUGHAN. Well, they were able to have visitors. They seemed to appreciate our visit because the purpose of it was to get a sense of what the conditions were for them in detention.

Ms. WATERS. So, did you on your visit, did you determine that the conditions were luxurious and extravagant and a ‘‘Holiday on Ice,’’ or just kind of an ordinary thing with some woman who cooked some food and brought it in? It was not catered by a restaurant. What was extraordinary or extravagant about these conditions?

Ms. VAUGHAN. I was surprised actually that it was as relaxed as it was considering that the local officers may not have had good information about who these people were or what all was in their background because this was before the era of secure communities and biometrics-based background checks. So, I remember thinking that they were potentially at risk because it was so relaxed.

Ms. WATERS. But they did not demonstrate that they were violent, or they were about to attack anybody, or that they were fighting. They did not demonstrate any of that.

Ms. VAUGHAN. Not during our visit.

Ms. WATERS. You just thought that maybe they should have because they had records of some kind, and you were just surprised that they were not violent, or fighting, or that kind of thing.

But I guess the bottom line is you did not observe extravagance, did you?

Ms. VAUGHAN. I would not call it extravagance, no. It was more kind of Mayberry-ish like atmosphere.

A Mayberry-ish like atmosphere? Ah, the fictional little town where “The Andy Griffith Show” was set!

Ms. WATERS. So, you think that is too nice for a detainee.

Ms. VAUGHAN. I would have left that up to the people who are in charge of running that facility. It seemed a little bit relaxed to me knowing what can happen.

Ms. WATERS. I know. You keep talking about it being relaxed, and I am not so sure what you are referring to. And what I am trying to find out is what this Holiday on ICE is because it implies that there is some kind of extravagance, and people want to be there. They are having a great time. They are having a vacation. But having just talked with you, I do not think that is the case.

Well, that was certainly one of the more bizarre witness interrogations that I witnessed on the Hill.


Gallegly gave some advice to the Obama administration at the “Holiday on ICE” hearing that Secretary Mayorkas and DO Brané might want to seriously consider (but won’t): “The best way to help immigration detainees is not to roll out the welcome mat at detention facilities. It is, reduce the amount of time they spend in detention by making better use of the tools Congress has provided to process illegal immigrants for removal more expeditiously.”