Politics & Policy

End the Civil Rights Commission’s Reign of Error

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

Everywhere you look, someone is accusing governments of abusing the rights of people crossing their borders. The United Nations just accused the Czech Republic of human-rights abuses for holding migrants in “degrading” conditions.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report in which it demanded that illegal-immigrant families be released from detention centers. Conditions in the centers, the commission suggested, were worse than the abuse and persecution they had fled in their home countries. It demanded that Congress stop funding detention centers.

If we know anything about the human-rights community, it’s that it often combines lofty idealism with dubious anecdotes and shifty statistics that undermine its genuine concerns. Take the U.S. commission’s report: On close examination, it is a dubious farrago of abuse claims used to lobby for a preferred pro-immigrant and pro-union outcome.

The report was supposed to examine conditions at detention facilities for immigrants, but its members didn’t get around to visiting any facilities until the report was nearly finished. They apparently thought they didn’t need to; instead, they relied largely on rumor and innuendo. Indeed, in its initial proposal to study detention facilities — adopted by the commission long before it undertook any research — the commission had already concluded that “egregious human rights and constitutional violations” were occurring.

“Sometimes where there is smoke, there is only a smoke-making machine, busily stoked by publicists working for activist organizations.”

– Gail Heriot

But the stinging minority rebuttal by Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, noted that the commissioners in the majority consistently failed to get their facts right. “It is said that where there is smoke, there is fire,” she wrote. “But sometimes where there is smoke, there is only a smoke-making machine, busily stoked by publicists working for activist organizations.”

Consider the commission’s criticism of the Karnes Family Detention Center, about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, which the Commission finally visited in May. Fox News host Greta Van Susteren called Karnes “the Ritz Carlton of federal detention centers.” This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a lot less of one than the statement of Commission Chairman Martin Castro, who wrote in the report that facilities such as Karnes “are subjecting detained immigrants to torture-like conditions.”

Let’s look at the torture being inflicted. Karnes is filled with women with minor children. Typically, the women attempted to enter the country with their children surreptitiously, were picked up by the Border Patrol, and are now seeking asylum on the ground that they were being subjected to domestic violence by their husbands or boyfriends.

RELATED: Half a Century of Barely Controlled Immigration

Heriot visited Karnes with other commission members but found no torture. She called Karnes “surprisingly attractive,” with pictures of SpongeBob SquarePants, a rainbow, and butterflies decorating the walls. She wrote: “When we were led to a room at the Karnes facility that contained rows and rows of brand-new brand-name clothing and told that new arrivals were permitted to select six outfits for themselves and each of their children, the looks on the faces of my colleagues were of astonishment.”

The 24/7 health-care clinic, full library, spacious courtyards, big-screen TVs, basketball court, hair salon, weight rooms, and artificial-turf soccer field must be a form of the old adage “killing them with kindness.” Even the residents agreed that the detention facilities were more than adequate.

One resident remarked in Spanish that if the guards let him out on Sundays, he wouldn’t mind staying indefinitely.

At the Port Isabel Processing Center near Harlingen, Texas, the second (and less comfortable) facility visited by the commission’s inspection team, one resident remarked in Spanish that if the guards let him out on Sundays, he wouldn’t mind staying indefinitely. Another stated that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, everyone will treat you well, adding that the opportunities to engage in sports at the facility were a big plus.

Those statements and other positive information about Karnes and Port Isabel were left out of the commission’s majority report. They can be found only in the dissenting opinions of Heriot and her fellow commission member Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland attorney. Both of them filed minority rebuttals that savage the report’s scholarship for everything from mislabeled photographs to misinterpreted statistics.

#share#One error that the report repeats throughout is the failure to critically examine allegations of poor conditions at detention facilities or to report investigations that have disproven these charges. For example, the report breathlessly asserts that a witness at the commission’s hearing had seen maggots in the food at one detention center. But the witness was actually reporting an incident from 2007 that she had heard about thirdhand. The report failed to mention that a short time after the maggot story started circulating, an American Bar Association delegation visited the center, found no evidence of food-service problems, and clearly doubted the maggot story.

RELATED: No More ‘Sanctuary’ for Criminals

Two months later in 2007, a two-day site visit was conducted by the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, whose food-service professionals examined every inch of the kitchen. They also interviewed detainees who provided feedback ranging from “Delicious” and “Grateful for the food” to “Too many eggs” and “Milk is outdated.” The inspectors uncovered a few minor problems in the kitchen, but the accreditation team was clear that reports in the media of “deplorable” conditions were not substantiated and should be taken with a pillar of salt. That the Civil Rights Commission report failed to mention either this investigation or the one by the American Bar is sloppy at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

Similarly, the report repeats the allegations by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) of sexual misconduct at Karnes, but it neglects to note that these allegations had been discredited in a painstaking report by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security before MALDEF’s witness testified about the allegations at the commission’s January hearing. “In no case did the commission undertake an investigation to determine the truth or falsity of a rumor it reported,” an exasperated Heriot concluded in her rebuttal.

#related#Why all the effort to make the detention centers look bad? The core recommendation in the report is that the DHS should “act immediately to release families from detention.” What the report ignores is that once released, asylum seekers tend not to show up for their hearings. The Department of Justice officially estimates that currently 46 percent of the unaccompanied children are ordered removed “in absentia” (meaning that they failed to show up for their hearings). At least one other estimate based on hard data runs at twice that level.

But whether the correct level is 46 percent or 92 percent, the fact remains that a nation that releases from detention those who attempt to enter the nation surreptitiously will lose control of who is permitted to live in the nation and who is not. The commission completely ignores this problem and instead cheerfully and inaccurately reports that only about 7 percent of released individuals will fail to appear for their hearings.

There is another potential motive for the commission’s mind-bending inaccuracies. Commissioner Kirsanow noted in his rebuttal that the commission has a goal of securing free legal advice, and eventually citizenship, for illegal immigrants — all at taxpayer expense:

The majority’s Recommendation 13 urges that taxpayers pay for attorneys for illegal immigrants. Exactly why a nation that is 18 trillion dollars in debt should pay for attorneys for people who broke its immigration laws is unclear, particularly given that most of those heavily burdened taxpayers want recent border crossers packed off to their countries of origin posthaste. Taxpayer funding for immigration attorneys would, however, be a boon to the immigration bar and to open borders advocates. This report is primarily motivated by the interests of those two groups and the need to provide political cover to the administration’s lawlessness, so perhaps that is the only explanation needed for a recommendation that would extend plundering of taxpayers and gutting of immigration enforcement into a new realm.

Sadly, the commission’s report on detention centers is only the latest example in an egregious history of politicized actions on immigration.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created by Congress to investigate the state of civil rights in America. Since its heyday during the late 1950s and 1960s, it has had its ups and its downs, but the downs have been more frequent than the ups. The tumultuous chairmanship of leftist Mary Frances Berry between 1993 and 2004 is still referred to as “the Reign of Terror” by congressional staffers who unsuccessfully tried to rein her in. Financial mismanagement, pathological partisanship, and lax standards for accuracy were among the commission’s many problems during that era. In 2002, it took a court order to force Berry to allow Kirsanow, President George W. Bush’s appointee to the commission, to take his seat.

RELATED: Betraying the American People on Immigration Is No Small Thing

Is there any chance the commission will write more accurate and balanced reports in the future? Not likely. Commissioner Kirsanow’s dissenting opinion was initially “inadvertently” left out of the commission report. Mistakes like that can happen, but when they do, it should take hours, not the weeks that it did, to correct them on the commission’s website. Instead of apologizing for the long delay, the commission staff has announced that for next year’s report, they will shorten the period of time that commissioners will have to write dissenting opinions.

It’s not worth trying to fix the commission. Twenty years of reform efforts have failed. It’s time to end its “Reign of Error.” Congress should put it out of its misery.

— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.

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