Jail is for criminals, not immigrants | Editorial

Published: Oct. 10, 2021

No matter what you think of our immigration laws, the way we force tens of thousands of people to languish for years behind bars, awaiting their court dates, is indefensible.

America jails more of these people than any other country. And most of them have been charged with no crime. These are parents, pizza guys, people fleeing persecution, and putting them behind bars is a moral travesty. Leaving them locked up for years, simply because the underfunded immigration courts are too crowded, is inexcusable.

They are incarcerated just because the government wants to make sure they show up in immigration court. Instead of fixing the court backlog with adequate funding, we leave them to rot in their cells in horrible conditions.

“Detention, in many ways, is an experience of dehumanization,” said Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark. A nation can regulate its frontiers, he told us, but must do so in an ethical way.

“There was a definite strategy in recent years to demonize the undocumented, and in some ways, it was very successful,” he said. “When you take away somebody’s humanity, that gives you license to do heinous things to them.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made a powerful case that detention should be the rare exception, rather than the rule, in a 2015 report called “Unlocking Human Dignity.” Now, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, backed by a new coalition of faith leaders and advocates in New Jersey called the Interfaith Campaign for Just Closures, are picking up that torch again.

It’s not enough to remove the specter of Donald Trump – the core inhumanity of immigration detention in America will continue until we revamp the system altogether. Stop the presumption of detention and create a more humane, cheaper infrastructure to handle the legal traffic of these cases.

“They should not be yanked out of their family situation, yanked out of their jobs and put in a detention center until their case is finished,” Watson Coleman said of these immigrants, some of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades. “There are all kinds of alternatives of accountability.”

It’s reasonable to detain those who have been charged with a crime and could put the public in danger. But what about those who pose no threat?

No one is arguing that we should just let all these people vanish. We have other proven strategies that are much cheaper, ranging from supervised release to case management to GPS tracking, to ensure they show up in court.

We didn’t always rely so massively on imprisonment. When Ellis Island closed in 1954, our government formally announced it was ending its use of detention for immigration processing in “all but a few cases,” in favor of more humane approaches like conditional release or supervision.

Yet later, in the 1980s – with the arrival of thousands of fleeing Haitian and Cuban refugees – we returned to the use of mass detention. The same tough-on-crime policies that fueled the mass incarceration of Black and brown people in the 1990s also helped make our immigration detention system the costly monstrosity it is today.

We went from detaining 85,000 immigrants in 1995 to more than 500,000, after nearly three decades of expansion. It became more punitive and less transparent, with a dramatic spike in the use of private prison companies, thanks to their powerful lobbying arms in Congress. And it’s been one scandal after another, from rotting food and needless strip searches to harrowing sexual assaults.

People are largely sent to remote facilities without lawyers or access to bond hearings. Meanwhile, we are spending 1/60th of what ICE and Customs and Border Protection gets on our clogged court system, resulting in two-year delays, and our default has been to just leave them all behind bars.

They’re locked in limbo, with no clue how long an appeal will take, or if ICE will keep fighting their case even if they win. The cost to taxpayers is enormous: $158 a night, on average, for a detention bed compared to $10.55 a day for monitoring on the outside.

This is all justified based on the theory that people won’t show up to court if they’re not locked up. But decades of studies show legal representation and community-based case management services are close to 100 percent effective at ensuring people appear in court for their immigration cases.

Yet the government devotes only a sliver of its budget to this. That must change. “If we ever needed a reminder that detention should be used only as a last resort, when everything else that might ensure people’s appearances has been exhausted, the COVID-19 pandemic is proof positive of that,” notes Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies.

People were denied urgent medical care, even basics like soap, putting their lives at risk when jails become hotbeds of viral spread. Extensive quarantines only compounded the suffering.

“While I was detained, my wife gave birth to our second child and our family lost our home,” Johannes Favi, detained while awaiting his green card, testified to Congress last year. “I met our new baby in a picture by mail. I saw a man who was detained with me hang himself to try to commit suicide. I feel traumatized still today from all that I saw.”

Yet after a decades-long push to villainize immigrants and build up this massive infrastructure, many politicians are afraid of appearing weak if they seek to dismantle it. The bishops feel compelled to speak out because they’ve visited these places and met these people up close, Cardinal Tobin said. “What that does is it puts a face on the prisoner. They’re not just a statistic or worse, a political pawn,” he said. “You can see them, and you can listen to them.”

When will the rest of us finally put politics aside, too, and see this injustice for what it is?

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-10-11 03:15:56 -0700