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DHS agrees to stop shackling immigrant detainees without cause

Most people being held in immigration detention aren’t accused of any criminal offense and pose no threat of violence or disruptive behavior. Nevertheless, if you were an immigrant detainee in Northern California, you couldn’t appear in Immigration Court without being shackled at the wrists and ankles, and chained from those shackles to your waist. It didn’t matter if you were elderly, disabled, or a victim of domestic violence. It didn’t matter if you were seeking asylum after being shackled, chained and tortured in your own country.

No, as you testified in what might be the most important case of your life, you were shackled and chained. Your family -- even your small children -- might be there, watching. You might, as many did, feel so humiliated and demeaned that you couldn’t concentrate.

This treatment is unconstitutional, and it’s inhumane. In 2011, the ACLU of Northern California and other activists filed a class-action lawsuit against Department of Homeland Security over this inhumane treatment. The case was in court for more than two years, and 16 former immigrant detainees testified about their demoralizing experiences being shackled like dangerous criminals as a matter of policy.

In an exciting turn of events, the DHS has just decided that it agrees. After the agency agreed to settle the case, the ACLU submitted a proposal to the judge -- and DHS didn’t oppose it. It simply agreed to change the policy.

As a result, detainees in Northern California can no longer legally be shackled or restrained during their bond hearings or trials except in “narrowly defined emergency situations,” and they can never be chained together for any reason. They will still have to submit to the shackling during master calendar hearings when large groups of detainees are at court together, but those hearings are typically short and involve no testimony by individual detainees. Even then, detainees can ask not to be shackled if they have a physical or psychological condition that makes being shackled especially difficult.

Although this settlement only applies to immigrant detainees with cases in San Francisco, the ACLU said it “represents a sea change” in DHS policy and practice and hopes it will be used as a model nationwide. The principle ought to hold here in North Carolina and in any U.S. jurisdiction; we await further developments.

That principle is simply that every human being deserves to be treated with basic dignity.

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