Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The American Prospect: The Big Business of Family Detention

Courtney Martin, of The American Prospect, says family detention should be at the top of the immigration rights agenda for Obama's administration.  While the costs of immigration and family detention are high--totaling 2.7 billion dollars this year in ICE's budget this year--the moral costs are higher:

The bottom line is not just economic, however. Children and families have suffered inexcusable indignities under this new policy, which treats them like convicted criminals instead of asylum-seekers and potential citizens. Despite the fact that myriad human rights and community groups -- such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Immigration Studies -- have condemned the practice of detaining children in prison-like environments, ICE is seeking to open three new family detention centers, doubling its capacity. As of this writing, ICE still hasn't released the names of the winning contractors and/or locations, but the announcement is expected to be made sometime this year with the new facilities scheduled to open in 2010. ...

Thanks to lawsuits against CCA, children can now wear pajamas, play, and attend classes during the day, and pregnant women are receiving some neonatal care, but the spirit of incarceration continues. Immigration officials claim that family detention is necessary in order to prevent immigrants and asylum-seekers from fleeing the country. However, even ICE admits that alternatives -- like its own pilot program in 2004 where specialists were assigned a limited caseload of detainees whom they monitored using home visits and telephone calls -- have a 94 percent appearance rate overall.

Family detention centers may provide a meager 6 percent reduction in flight risk, but this country pays a far bigger price in lost integrity. We lock up children and their families -- many of whom have suffered economic deprivation, exploitation, and oftentimes, domestic and sexual abuse -- before they've even had a hearing as to their immigration status.

Renee Feltz, a multimedia investigative journalist based in New York City who co-runs a project on the business of immigrant detention, reports that waiting in such unbearable conditions often brings immigrants -- especially women with children -- to their knees. "Many of the people we talked to are so miserable in these facilities that they will eventually agree to being deported even if they think they have a legitimate claim to asylum," Feltz says. "They just want to get out as fast as possible."

In this way, one of the first lessons we teach potential new citizens about America is one of cruel, Orwellian hypocrisy. You must earn your freedom, if at all, via imprisonment. Dignity comes only by bearing undignified conditions. The last administration's obsession with family values is glaringly absent from this Civics 101 course. We welcome children who have heard tall tales of the abundance and liberty of America with rehabbed cells and 10 minutes to wolf down an inadequate lunch of cheap starches on a prison tray.

First and foremost, immigrant family detention must stop. On Jan. 21, Grassroots Leadership, a Southern community organizing group, launched a campaign with this goal, calling it 100 Actions in 100 Days. Given the new administration, hope for immigration reform, and a renewed focus on addressing corporate corruption, it's an opportune time to reactivate the country around this issue.

But there's an even bigger picture here that we must not lose sight of. Immigrant detention, on the whole, is riddled with corruption, inefficiencies, and indignities. Comprehensive immigration reform is a vital component of our country's next few years of healing and reform.

And an even bigger picture still: We live in a society that has bought blindly into the privatization and proliferation of our prisons. It's not so surprising that we force immigrant children to live in cells and wear hospital garb when you consider the national tendency toward incarceration, racism, and xenophobia.

We've got a lot to heal. Let's start by abolishing family detention centers immediately.