Probe of immigration detention sites urged

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Some New York City elected officials and immigrant advocates are calling on the federal government to investigate conditions at immigration detention facilities, just as the government has added hundreds of spots for local detainees convicted of crimes.

Local leaders, including city Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, concerned about reports of mistreatment -- from denial of medication or visitors to outright abuse -- of noncriminal inmates have asked the Department of Justice to investigate the private companies that run many of the nation's immigration detention centers.

In New York and New Jersey, there are now 3,044 beds for immigrant detainees -- who may include those seeking asylum, those who have overstayed their visas and green-card holders -- according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In October, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement added 750 new beds to hold local immigration-law violators in New Jersey -- 300 in an Essex County jail and 450 in a new facility on the grounds of a privately run substance-abuse treatment center.

"We write to express deep concern regarding practices at privately operated detention centers contracted by the federal government, and disappointment regarding the Justice Department's failure to investigate industry practices that may jeopardize the health and safety of immigrant detainees," de Blasio and five local Democratic members of the U.S. House, as well as New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in December.

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A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the issue, as did a spokesman for the GEO Group, a private jail contractor that elected officials have singled out for alleged mistreatment of detainees.

The GEO Group operates 7,000 of the nation's 32,000 detention beds, according to elected officials, including some in New York City, though none of its local centers hold immigrant detainees.

"What I hear from these immigrants is when they're put into these detention facilities they're basically being treated as criminals, they're put into uniforms, they're shackled, and that's not what our country is about," said Dromm, chairman of the council's immigration committee, who held a Dec. 13 hearing on the issue.

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