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Reforming America's Immigration Gulags Becomes Front-Burner Issue

Calls for major restructuring of the immigration detention system may soon become unavoidable.
 
 
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Guantanamo Bay isn't the only prison crisis that President Barack Obama will have to deal with. There's another crisis growing -- immigration detention centers carpeting the interior of the country. Long ignored by policymakers because the combination of immigration and prison reform is politically lethal, calls for major restructuring of the immigration detention system may soon become unavoidable. The death of German immigrant Guido Newbrough in a Virginia detention center has again pushed the issue to the front burner, helped along by incessant calls for change from advocates like Gil Velazquez.

"I went through that system. I was there. I could have died too," says Velazquez upon hearing of Newbrough's death. Velazquez, a recently released immigrant detainee from Oaxaca, Mexico who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, is looking for action from Washington. "I wish I could speak to Mr. Obama. I would tell him 'They (immigration authorities) jail so many people and they don't know what they're doing. They have no right to let people die," said Velazquez.

His mobility and work possibilities are limited by the big black ankle bracelet that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is forcing him to wear until his hearing in June. He cannot leave his sister's apartment in the evenings. But Velazquez does not let his undocumented status limit his freedom.

"I want him (Obama) to know that we should be building schools and hospitals, things that help people, not these prisons," the very soft-spoken Velazquez declared in his most strident cadence as he took a break from folding flyers for a protest to halt the construction of another immigrant detention center in Farmville, where Newborough died.

Velazquez's indefatigable efforts form part of a large and growing movement to put immigration detention issues front and center of any upcoming reform of the larger immigration system from the Obama administration. He and other critics of the system see the root of Newbrough's death and a host of other problems -- death from medical neglect, denial of habeas corpus and other basic legal rights, lack of sanitation, food and other basic necessities, violent and abusive guards, to name a few -- in the exponential growth of the immigrant detainee population. It has tripled since 1996, according to ICE records.

Demands for a radical restructuring of the detention and deportation system have become the main message on the placards, press statements and posters of a growing galaxy of older and new advocacy groups outside the Beltway. Groups like the Detention Watch Network, an umbrella organization made up of immigrant detention advocates from across the country, report rapid growth in membership and actions since the failure of immigration reform unleashed an unprecedented regime of raids and incarceration targeting immigrants.

Fueled by what groups like Virginia's People United, a multi-issue activist organization, are calling the "humanitarian crisis" in immigrant detention, Velazquez and others' increasingly vociferous calls for changes to the detention system have also created a political crisis for supporters of the more legalization-centered approach to immigration reform favored by backers of some version of the McCain-Kennedy bill of 2006-2007 which was also supported by then Senator Barack Obama. The failure of McCain-Kennedy, gave rise not just to exponential increases in the numbers of ICE raids (an average of 11 per day); it also gave long-ignored detention reform flank of the immigrant rights movement more motivated troops and unprecedented resources -- more than a dozen reports on detention issues are expected in coming months.

Many new detention reform groups have arisen and established groups like People United have placed immigrant detention near the center of their agenda in the last two years thanks to the constant stream of sad and often bizarre detention stories. "I just spoke with a man being held in the jail where Mr. Newbrough died," said Jeff Winder, a regional organizer with People United. "The man told me that they're cutting even more services to save money. Less than two months after the second death in that prison they're cutting heat, toilet paper, food and other basic services. He even told me that there are 30 lights on the ceiling but that only 5 are turned on. People are crowding under lights just to read."

Winder also pointed to several recent events – a hostage situation in Texas, hunger strikes across the country, legal victories for detainees claiming they were physically and psychologically abused, other deaths in detention – as examples of the "scandal in immigrant detention we see every week." The steady stream of bad detention news is forcing Winder and other activists to find balance in the optimism mirrored by the Obama moment. "There's a real mood of hope in the country. The end of the horrible abuses of Bush is very important and historic. I celebrate that, he said, adding, "But I'm waiting to see what President Obama will do about creating really viable alternatives to detention."

Asked about the alternatives, Winder cited a 1998 government-funded study by the Vera Institute of Justice. The study found that, with a battery of community services costing less than $12 per person per day (versus the national average of $120 per day for people in immigration detention centers) the government could drastically reduce the numbers of people in immigrant detention facilities. "Reducing the number of people is important," said Winder. "But the more important question President Obama will have to answer why we have so many people rotting in immigrant prisons in the first place."

 

Roberto Lovato, a frequent Nation contributor, is a New York-based writer with New America Media.
 
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