Immigrant Imprisonment – The Facts Behind Family Separation and Detention

Today has been declared a national day to protest family (and individual) detention and family separation. Why should we protest detention when there are unprecedented numbers – according to the President and media – of immigrants trying to cross our borders? Follow the money. As our country’s de-incarceration movement takes hold, immigrants are easy substitutes for black and brown citizens. The same amount of federal dollars that flowed towards the War on Drugs can now flow towards the War on Immigrants. With a few rhetorical flourishes – “immigrants are criminals and rapists”, “national security is paramount”, “border crisis” – the country’s attention can shift from the long-held acknowledgement of what immigrants and refugees bring to what immigrants and refugees “cost” – because of course, if immigrants and refugees are criminals . . .

  • then we have to pay the price of jailing them,
  • of providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care in a detention facility
  • and therefore, the first order of business is to contain the “threat” by building more jails and the second order of business is to scream and yell about how we are being overrun and therefore don’t have enough beds in jails
  • and we can’t build the jails fast enough so we need to build a wall – real or virtual –
  • so that we have time to build more beds and more jails
  • and really if we just had the ability to throw people away at the border rather than dealing with the tiresome requirements of due process – of providing a hearing – we could save so much money because we wouldn’t have to build more jails
  • so you see the whole fault of the expensive cost of building jails is really those folks who are demanding due process . . .Dayenu!

Non-citizens are treated like non-humans so that prison builders, prison employees and the entire prison/enforcement industrial complex can continue just as it has been.

And before we respond to this by saying, “well, but there definitely is a problem with people that violate our laws by crossing the border without documentation”, let’s examine the assumptions that provide the foundation underneath this sentiment:

  • Assumption one: our laws regarding when a person can come into this country and when they can’t are reasonable and based on our national interests;
  • Assumption two: the numbers of persons that come into our country adds to the overall population in our country;
  • Assumption three: based on assumption two, any newcomer adds at least some small burden to our country’s resources since more people means more mouths to feed, persons to house, persons to employ, persons to keep healthy, persons to educate, etc.;
  • Assumption four: anyone who is willing to violate one of our laws is potentially willing to violate all of our laws.

Each of these assumptions, however, is flawed. First and foremost, is the flaw with the assumption that our current laws are reasonable and based on our national interests. There is strong bi-partisan agreement that our immigration system is broken. So why haven’t we come up with a replacement? Because there is a disagreement about what, precisely is broken. Some believe that what is broken is the fact that we are too lenient – our enforcement is not strong enough (Exhibit A being the 11 million undocumented folks that currently live in the country), our borders are too porous, our policies with respect to asylum seekers (which, in the past, did not often involve detention but instead involved ankle monitoring) too liberal. In other words, we need to do a better job of keeping people out.

But there are two problems with this. First, when laws are violated by more than 3% of the current population, it’s not just a question of needing better enforcement. .06% of the U.S. population is incarcerated and we are, rightfully, outraged about this. We are not, in the current climate (with the exception of immigrants), trying to incarcerate more. We are trying to incarcerate fewer. We are recognizing – with every legalized marijuana statute, with every sentencing reduction policy – that when more people are in jail than out, there is a serious problem with our criminalization of human behavior. There is a point – and the end of Prohibition is a perfect historical example – when Americans realize that the cure is more dangerous than the illness. And at that point, the answer is to change the cure, not prescribe more of it. More law enforcement is a rallying cry that we have heard before – repeatedly – and not only doesn’t it work, it is bad societal policy. It creates more prisoners and law breakers rather than solving any problems. And perhaps most importantly, it creates more problems – separated families, frustrated businesses, job loss, health (physical and mental) issues and the tying up of funds that could be used for roads, job creation, healthcare and education and are instead being used for prisons and enforcement.

And the second problem with the first flawed assumption, that our laws are currently based on our national interests, is that it assumes flawed assumptions number two and three are true – that immigrants, whatever they might add, ultimately burden an overburdened system (of roads, healthcare, education, etc.). Study after study has shown that immigrants add, don’t detract from the economy. They add to the tax base and they add to the jobs sector by creating jobs through the businesses they create. In addition, population is not static. While immigrants coming in means more people, birth-rates falling (a phenomenon that we are currently experiencing in the U.S.) and outward migration means fewer. Even assuming that immigrants add to our population, keeping people out costs our country because immigrants add to our economy more than they take from it.

This then brings us to the fourth flawed assumption – that undocumented immigrants, i.e., immigrants who found no way to enter or remain in our country under our current laws but entered or stayed anyway are therefore more likely to be lawbreakers since they seem not to care about the laws that kept them out in the first place. The flaw in this, of course, is the failure to understand who immigrants are and why they do the things that they do. It is true that not every undocumented immigrant has a valid claim to asylum. But remember, since our current system is based on the assumption that barriers to immigration are more important than letting people in, there is no room for the person who legally came to study here, did so for three years, fell in love, married, then, unable to pay tuition in the fourth year, left school and fell out of status. There is no room for the person, labeled disdainfully as “merely” an economic migrant when he leaves his hometown where there are no jobs to be found and no ability to put food on his table for his family. There is no room for the person who, brought to this country as a child by his parents and raised in this country as an American – without ties to his country of origin - discovers to his chagrin that he is not legally here and has no legal pathway to remain. None of these persons are likely felons or even petty thieves. They are human beings who have done what human beings have always done. They migrate for safety, food, opportunity and love. Being undocumented shows their grit and determination to make a better life for themselves and their families much more than it is any indication of criminal behavior. Again, when laws create more lawbreakers than solve problems, it’s time – as history has repeatedly shown - to re-visit the law, not step up the enforcement of the bad law.

Pouring billions of dollars into a border wall, increased border security and increased number of prisons for immigrants is throwing good money after bad. It’s funding for a fake solution to a fake emergency. Ronald Reagan said in his final Presidential address, '[t]his I believe is one of the most important sources of Americas greatness. We draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world . . . If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.” There couldn’t be a clearer indication of what is broken with our immigration system and it has nothing to do with doing a better job of keeping people out.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Write to your Congress person –
    • demand that they start seriously working on immigration reform that acknowledges what immigrants and refugees bring to us
    • demand that they closely monitor the President’s spending activities and how changes to immigration policies are increasing spending
  • Post on social media! For example:
    • We oppose family detention and all other forms of immigrant incarceration and separation
    • ICE is actively violating human rights and due process, and has a history of mental and physical abuse and medical neglect of detained immigrants.