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Thousands of illegal aliens held in camps and legal limbo
Published: Sunday February 18, 2007
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The US government is holding growing numbers of illegal immigrants in jails far from their lawyers and family, and even sometimes in tents, where their rights are not respected, civil liberties groups say.

"It's like Guantanamo Bay, but these people are not terrorists. They are just immigrants," Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told AFP.

He said the number of detained undocumented aliens had reached a record 26,500, and they are often held without access to legal assistance.

President George W. Bush has repeatedly admitted the US cannot expel all the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who live in the country, and has asked Congress to find a way to regularize their status.

So under pressure from Congress, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stepped up operations to round up illegal aliens, bolstering the holding capacity of prisons to avoid having to set some prisoners free for lack of space.

The government has also created an immigrant detention center in Raymondville, Texas, just a few kilometers (miles) from the Mexican border, where 2,000 detainees live in big tents without windows awaiting deportation.

The immigrants held there have no access to lawyers, and the conditions of their detention have sparked criticism from various organizations, including the American Bar Association (ABA), which has sent the government a letter to express its concern.

"The ABA opposes the involuntary transfer of detained immigrants and asylum seekers when the transfer impedes an existing attorney-client relationship and makes it difficult to obtain new representation," the document said.

Sarnata Reynolds, director of the refugee program of Amnesty International, said that "by creating a tent city in the middle of nowhere, even organizations that provide pro bono or free services or consultations really can't get to these people and that represents a huge problem."

Attorney Douglas Wachholz, who works in the Washington metropolitan area, said one of his clients, Mexican national Leticia Chavez, had been flown from Virginia to Raymondville without warning during the night with her arms bound.

Chavez now is not allowed to call him, and has no access to the consular services she is entitled to, he said.

"Taking an inmate so far from her lawyer and her family and isolating her in a tent next to the border is a violation of the constitution," pointed out Wachholz. "There she has no rights."

Wilkes said the government was organizing immigrant round-ups to demonstrate it was implementing immigration laws, but it lacked detention centers to house those netted in the swoops.

Wachholz like Wilkes denounced the "awful conditions" in which the immigrants are being held.

For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued the government over immigrant detention conditions in one of the prisons in San Diego, California, where 1,000 undocumented migrants are being held.

"Detaining these people in crowded, unsafe conditions for months or years on end is perverse and inhumane," said the civil rights organization, pointing to a lack of medical services and the spread of disease.

Criticism comes not only from outside the government. A recent internal DHS report noted the poor treatment of detainees in some prisons, including San Diego, and said conditions there do not meet accepted US norms.