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End Immigrant Detention


Ana Raquel Minian is one of our finest historians of immigration. I strongly recommend her book Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. She has a powerful Times op-ed on the need to end immigrant detention that you must read:

The United States was founded on the notion that it welcomes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but it is also a nation of prisoners. Mr. Arredondo’s story sheds light on how immigrant detention overlaps with America’s prison system.

In theory, the purposes of detention and imprisonment are distinct. Unlike people held by the criminal justice system, detained immigrants are not being penalized for breaking the law; they are being held while they wait for permission to enter the country or until they are removed or deported. Nonetheless, the nation’s detention and prison systems have grown side by side, buttressed by the same logic and practice.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese labor immigrants from entering the country. At the time, there were no federal immigrant detention centers to hold immigrants whose eligibility was in question or who were slated for deportation. In San Francisco — where a significant portion of Chinese immigrants landed — some were detained in the county jail.

These immigrants — many of whom had the right to enter the United States — were caged while they waited for inspectors to decide whether they could enter the country. Their race, rather than their actions, determined whether they spent time behind bars.

Ellis Island opened its doors a decade later. While it is commonly thought of as the gateway to America, the site also detained immigrants for health or legal reasons. By then, immigration law prohibited entry not only to Chinese laborers but to multiple groups of “undesirable people” among whom were those deemed “insane,” “idiots” or “likely to become a public charge.” Some were held in overcrowded, lice-infested compartments that had wire for walls and windows that were boarded shut.

Immigrant detention changed dramatically in 1980, after the arrival of nearly 125,000 Cubans from the port of Mariel. Thousands of Cubans were placed in military bases while they waited to be processed. Approximately 400 men who could not find sponsors willing to take financial responsibility for them while they settled into life in the United States were sent to the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

Others, like Pedro Prior-Rodriguez, ended up in the prison for reasons that would be incomprehensible to most Americans. Soon after he arrived, he was mugged and severely beaten on the streets of Rochester, N.Y. During the attack he lost one of his eyes and ended up in the hospital. But when it became clear that Mr. Prior-Rodriguez “required a treatment not available,” immigration officials revoked his parole and instead sent him to the Atlanta penitentiary.

The Reagan administration used immigrant detention to expand the prison system. In 1982 the deputy attorney general, Edward C. Schmults, recommended the construction of both an immigration detention center and a federal prison by stating that the Cuban exiles “put great additional pressure on our already overcrowded federal prison system.” Legislators upheld the idea that more facilities were needed because of Mariel Cubans.

Immigrant detention also played a key role in the development of one of the most criticized parts of the carceral system: its reliance on private prisons. In 1984 the Corrections Corporation of America opened the first completely privately run prison in the United States. It was a detention center. Today the Corrections Corporation, rebranded as CoreCivic, is one of the largest private prison contractors in the United States. Along with other for-profit prison companies, it has spent large sums in lobbying and campaign distributions.

The whole system is a complete nightmare and puts the lie to everything Americans like to say about themselves.

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