Immigration Detention: Time for a Change

American-Gulag-Dow-Mark-Dow cover 300Through this blog, I have the opportunity not only to share my voice, but also to lift up the voices of others standing for welcome at LIRS and throughout the nation.  Today I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS. He speaks with Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, on the important issue of detention.

 Over the past 15 years, the United States has built up an enormous immigration detention system.  Starting with the tightening of immigration laws in 1996, millions of immigrants have been detained, often under inhumane conditions and without legal representation to help them navigate the murky waters of immigration law.  Under the current Administration, detention and deportations have only grown with the implementation of Secure Communities and 287(g). And, in turn, a grassroots movement of groups and coalitions such as Detention Watch Network (DWN) has sprung up in response.

As Congress convenes, however, and President Obama and a broad coalition of allies push immigration reform as a top priority, now is the time to talk about why the thinking around immigration detention must change.

We were lucky enough to speak with author Mark Dow about this issue.  Here are his thoughts:

Luke Telander (LT):   What final outcome, in terms of detention, do you expect from the comprehensive immigration reform legislation expected to emerge this year? What would be the ideal outcome?

Mark Dow (MD): I can’t predict the outcome. Ideally, the enforcement budget would be cut and fewer detention beds funded.  Detention standards would become regulations so that they would be legally enforceable; that’s something Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyers worked hard to prevent the last time around.  ICE contracting with private prison companies should be outlawed.  Independent monitoring of ICE detention and enforcement actions should be established from outside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  There should be a statutory right to appointed counsel for detainees and others in removal proceedings, and the 1996 mandatory detention laws should be revoked.

LT:  What prompted you to write American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons?  Did any personal experiences influence that decision?

MD:  In the early 1990s I taught GED classes at the Krome detention center in Miami.  It was run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); this was before ICE was established.  I had no idea what immigration detention was.  Pretty soon another teacher and I were fired for reasons I explain in the book.  I was working for the local school system, by the way, which had a contract with the INS.  Anyway, I started volunteering at the Haitian Refugee Center and eventually convinced them to pay me.  My main job was to try to keep track of what was going on at Krome. Soon I was in touch with organizations monitoring detention conditions in New York and Texas and California, but there was practically zero media awareness of detention – very different from today.  There were some 5,000 detainees nationwide at the time, about a seventh of today’s number.

What stayed with me more than anything after every time I drove back from my teaching job at Krome was how isolated these prisoners were – how unnecessary their detention seemed, and how invisible it was.  There were hundreds of Haitian refugees – and Chinese after Tiananmen, and others from dozens of countries – in orange jumpsuits, behind barbed wire, guarded by men and women who viewed them as enemies.  Guards warned teachers not to help the detainees.  It made no sense.  And all this was just west of the strip malls and suburbs of southwest Miami.  In the process of getting fired, I also had my first glimpse into the arbitrary authority the immigration agency wields –  as an agency, and at the level of decision-making by individual low-level bureaucrats.  This was true with INS, and it continues with ICE.

LT:  In your work, you have pointed to the 1996 immigration laws as the starting point for the increase in detention and deportations. What was the thinking behind the law when it was passed?

MD:  There wasn’t much thinking – except about how to appeal to voters by using the anti-immigrant rhetoric those voters had been conditioned to respond to.

Congress rushed to be seen as doing something about the Oklahoma City bombing.  Laws were passed which congresspeople clearly did not understand.  But they didn’t need to understand them.  The point was political rhetoric, just as it had been in the so-called drug wars of the 1980s, which continue to destroy families after all these years. It was a natural step from mandatory minimums in drug-sentencing  – which never had much to do with ending drug use  – to the mandatory detention of non-citizens in the 1990s, which has practically nothing to do with “immigration” when we’re talking about long-time lawful residents detained and deported for old crimes.

In my book, a brave Texas woman who organized against the 1996 laws recounts the trauma of finding out that the immigration agency was trying to deport her Canadian-born husband for old drug crimes. She went to Lamar Smith’s office, and Smith’s immigration aide told her she was better off without her husband.  That’s the mentality at work, and it’s still making policy.  I’m baffled that the advocacy groups are not shouting that these laws be part of the current debate.

You asked about the “thinking” behind these laws.  It’s important for people to realize that most of the so-called immigration debate is theater.  It’s a big mistake to take it at face value.  Here’s an example.  Last year, NBC reported that Alabama Congressman Robert Aderholt used his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security to threaten ICE’s budget unless it kept the Etowah ICE detention center in his district.  Aderholt claims to be tough on immigration and national security, but his actions show that he’s the real danger.  He’s willing to sacrifice the federal immigration law enforcement budget in exchange for those jobs in his district – for votes, in other words.  Instead of debating him, or saying nothing, advocates should be publicizing his hypocrisy.  People will start to see that the dreaded “illegal immigration” is really not what this is about.

 LT:  How important is legal representation to immigrants facing deportation orders?  Why can so few in detention gain access to a lawyer?    

MD:  Legal representation is very important – and it’s a matter of basic fairness.  Immigration law is complicated.  Detainees, often speaking no English, are in an adversarial system and have to face government attorneys.  They have legal rights, but Congress and ICE use the detention system to pressure them to give up their rights.

There are systemic and logistical reasons that detainees often can’t get attorneys.  For one thing, they are detained.  That means being isolated geographically and psychologically from support networks and family.  How do you get a lawyer?  Do you have money to pay one?  If not, maybe the detention center will actually provide a list of legal services it’s supposed to provide.  Maybe the list won’t be completely outdated. Maybe one of the phone numbers on it will work – assuming the detention center phones work.  Maybe someone at the organization you call will answer the phone.  But the chances they’ll have the resources to take you on as a client are slim.

It’s simple: ICE detainees have legal cases to argue, and they are much more likely to win their cases when they have lawyers.  That’s why ICE and Congress don’t want them to have lawyers, but even President Bush’s former Undersecretary for Homeland Secretary has endorsed the idea of appointed counsel for ICE detainees.  It’s not a controversial idea.

LT:  Much has been made of Obama’s deportation record over the past 4 years. What can or should he do at the executive level to address this issue?

MD:  He can – and should – end 287(g) programs and Secure Communities.  This is another case in which the anti-immigrant groups are also anti-law-and-order.  I say that because these programs have been harshly and cogently criticized by law enforcement officials.  But, as with the 1996 laws and the drug laws before those, the politicians ignore the realities of these programs and simply use them as bumper stickers.

There is some room for optimism.  Obama did make the historical decision to defer enforcement on so-called DREAMers.  On the other hand, he was somehow convinced to spend enforcement resources to deport a few hundred Haitians to post-earthquake cholera conditions.  What could possibly be the motivation for that?  Who’s behind a decision like that?

But anyone surprised by Obama’s detention and deportation policies is naive.  Clinton is the president responsible for the laws behind Obama’s deportation record.  This immigrant detention crisis wasn’t created by President Bush after 9/11 — neither was Guantánamo — although lots of  intelligent liberals seem to think that’s what happened.  That’s why Obama can get away with it.  Democratic presidents worry about appearing weak, so they actually tend to be harsher with enforcement than Republican presidents; Philip Kretsedemas writes about this in his new book, The Immigration Crucible.

As for what he could do if he were willing: beyond the policy minutiae, the president could change the immigration debate by talking about the fluid nature of “citizenship.”  As for the ICE detention regime, he could stop a lot of the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of immigrant detainees by making this mistreatment a national concern.  A brief statement in the White House garden to reporters – and jailers – could go a long way.

LT:  There has been debate in the past within the immigration reform movement over whether to take a piecemeal or comprehensive approach to reform.  Would you support a bill reforming the detention and representation aspects of our current immigration laws that was not a part of a comprehensive reform package?

MD:  The area of immigration I know something about is detention.  And the current ICE detention system cannot be “reformed.”  In the 19th century, Charles Dickens visited America and wrote about the dehumanizing system of solitary confinement he witnessed in a Philadelphia prison.  But this system of psychological torture had been started by the Quakers.  It was prison reform.

Today we’re in a dangerous situation with respect to ICE detention “reform.”  The numbers in detention continue to increase, and immigration advocacy groups have regular meetings with ICE officials.  These advocates have in a sense become co-directors of the detention regime.  But it’s a regime that needs to be dismantled.  ICE should not be running it own prison system.  Since the 1980s, the expansion of this “non-penal” immigrant incarceration has expanded hand-in-hand with the blurring of categories: alien means criminal means terrorist.  And “noncitizen” means anything goes.  An Oakdale, Louisiana, Bureau of Prisons corrections officer told me that once they’re wearing that prison uniform, they’re no longer considered human.  Obviously detention conditions can be good or bad, and good is better.  But fundamentally, this is a system of dehumanization, so it cannot be made humane.

We need to return to using immigrant detention as a last resort, in cases in which safety is really an issue.  And there has to be an independent system for deciding that.  The jailer who’s asking Congress for jail funding should not also be deciding who to put in jail according to Congress’s laws, but that’s how the current system works.

LT:  What can individual Americans and their congregations do to ease the human suffering of people in detention, and bring about a more just system?

MD:  There are many things to do.  One thing I would suggest is to organize and insist on meeting with local jails or detention centers where immigrants are held.  Meet detainees as well as wardens and ICE officials.  Let the jail and ICE know you are monitoring conditions, too.  Does this threaten to become the “reform” I was just warning about?  Yes.  So don’t let it stop with conditions.  Find out who is detained and why.  Help them get lawyers.  And expand the debate.  The mentality behind this detention regime is out of touch with the realities of US society.  We have a separate criminal justice system now for non-citizens; it’s not just an immigration issue.  And remember that even – or should I say especially – the “unsympathetic” detainees deserve justice.  Too many advocacy groups still avoid them in search of the poster-child victims.   A green-card-holder with an old statutory-rape conviction deserves justice and humane treatment as much as an attractive, young asylum-seeker does.  Immigration advocates who disagree with that, or who are quiet about it, are ultimately aligning themselves with the Smiths and Aderholts.

LT:     Do you have any plans to follow up on your last book, American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons, or do you have other projects in the works?

MD:  I wrote that book because as far as I could tell no one else was doing it.  Today there are lots of people paying attention to ICE detention.  But I follow up with articles and op-eds here and there.  Meanwhile I’m writing nonfiction and poems that are another thing altogether.

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Comments

  1. Priscila Padron says

    “But this system of psychological torture had been started by the Quakers. It was prison reform.”

    As a Quaker-leaning attender to the Atlanta Friends Meeting, I was surprised to read this, although I’m admittedly not very conversant with Quaker history. I wish Mr. Dow had explained a little about the issue of solitary confinement, and how it is an American invention.

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