WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At the end of its first official visit to the United States, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said the United States should close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and end mandatory detention of asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and other foreign migrants.
In visits to detention centers in California and Texas, the group interviewed 280 detainees. The group said Monday the mandatory detention of undocumented foreign migrants, especially asylum seekers, is harmful and their futures should be decided by civil rather than criminal courts.
"We are concerned about the separating of families and urge the government to end the detention of families and children," said Leigh Toomey, one of the five Working Group members.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines "migrant" as any person who lives in a country where he or she was not born. The United States enacted mandatory detention for migrants in 1996. From 1996 to 2014, the number of immigrants in detention increased from 8,500 to more than 34,000. The United States operates the world's largest immigration detention system.
"Mandatory detention in the U.S. doesn't comport with international standards that say detention should be a measure of last resort—instead, the U.S. places nearly everyone who comes into the U.S. into detention centers," said Clara Long, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. "We'd love to see the government respond to this report by taking immediate action to reduce the number of people detained."
The group also found economic and racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and called for a system of assigning bail tailored to individuals and of increased access to legal representation.
"We recognized lengthy pretrial detention as a norm rather than an exception," said Seong-Phil Hong, another Working Group member.
The five U.N. officials, who spent two weeks in the United States, went to Illinois to examine the American criminal justice system, and California and Texas to look at immigration policy.
The Guantanamo Bay conclusions were based on interviews with the special envoy for Guantanamo closure at the State Department, as well as other officials in government, law and human rights, according to the group's report.
Of the 780 people who have been detained since the opening of the detention camp in 2002, 711 have been transferred and 60 remain. Nine detainees died while in custody, eight have been convicted by military commissions, and 20 have been cleared for release but are still detained.
The group will do further research over the next year to deliver a final report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017.