The Consequences of Enforcement Without Reform
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The public debate on immigration reform in the United States has tended to focus on a narrow set of factors: a porous border between the U.S. and Mexico, the large number of undocumented immigrants inside the United States, and the politics of comprehensive reform versus border security. Hidden beneath the surface of these debates, however, is a shadowy world of law enforcement mechanisms that not only exacerbate the immigration problem in the country, but also violate the due process and basic human rights of immigrants who get caught up in a " system of neglect" that can at times result in unnecessary death. These problems often begin at the front lines of enforcement. Last month, federal agents conducted the " biggest immigration raid in U.S. history" that nabbed nearly 400 workers at a meat-packing plant in Iowa. While most of the people arrested have been sentenced, "not one company official as yet faces any charges -- something critics say is typical of a federal government that is tough on employees but easy on owners." In fact, such raids tend to reinforce the Bush administration's public relations campaign designed to present the facade that "the federal government is cracking down on illegal immigration." As Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration-reform group America's Voice, noted, "[T]hose who think enforcement is the answer can't seriously believe the 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. can be arrested and deported."
Last November, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that "the days of treating employers who violate [immigration] laws by giving them the equivalent of a corporate parking ticket -- those days are gone. It's now felonies, jail time, fines, and forfeitures." But throughout 2007, just two percent of illegal immigration related arrests "involved criminal charges against those who hired the workers." In fact, the federal government's focus on employees rather than employers has "increased criminal prosecutions of immigration violators to record levels in part by filing minor charges against virtually every person caught illegally crossing some stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border." Piloted in 2005, "Operation Streamline," as the program is known, "requires that virtually everyone caught illegally crossing segments of the border be charged with at least a misdemeanor immigration count and jailed until they are brought to court and, if convicted, eventually deported." However, last February, Streamline cases outnumbered all other Department of Justice prosecutions combined. The program is "swamping federal courthouses" and "distorting the functions of law enforcement and the courts" as sex crimes, drug cases, murders, assault, and other crimes increasingly are ignored. "We're concerned about the misdirection of resources," said Heather Williams, first assistant to the federal public defender of Arizona, adding " this is taking on a life of its own."
'Better Care in the Dog Pound'
Since 2003, "when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] agency was created, 83 deaths reportedly have been linked to detention sites run by ICE or by private contractors and local governments." The ICE detention infrastructure holds more than 300,000 detainees per year and recent crackdowns have fueled a dramatic expansion, nearly doubling the number of beds (33,000) since 2004. A recent investigation of ICE detention centers by the Washington Post " found a hidden world of flawed medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, neglectful guards, ill-trained technicians, sloppy record-keeping, lost medical files and dangerous staff shortages." Detainees who are physically sick or mentally ill are caught up in ICE's " system of neglect" where "[t]hey are locked in a world of slow care, poor care and no care, with panic and cover-ups among employees watching it happen." One detainee, Yusif Osman, a native of Ghana, died in his cell of heart failure. It's likely his death resulted from poor record keeping and neglect. Doctors who reviewed Osman's case said "he might have lived had he received timely treatment, perhaps as basic as an aspirin." One nurse at an Arizona detention facility -- who quit because of "scary medicine" practices -- concluded that " dogs get better care in the dog pound."
Fewer Rights, More Smuggling
The Immigration Policy Center (IPC) has noted that "[r]ather than reducing undocumented immigration, the enforcement-without-reform strategy" pursues "undocumented immigrants who are not a threat to anyone, and who are drawn here by the labor needs of our own economy." But once swept up, in most cases these ICE detainees "are not guaranteed free legal representation" and as part of ICE's " expedited removal" program, many arriving immigrants are quickly deported " without the opportunity for a hearing before an immigration judge." In fact, most of the 30,000-plus detainees do not even face criminal charges; many are there for civil violations, some have overstayed a visa, while others are seeking asylum. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) called the laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants " repugnant," adding that they are "violating due process and basic human rights of people." Moreover, the IPC notes that such immigration policies have "fueled the growth of increasingly profitable and sophisticated businesses in human smuggling." The "[i]ncreased corruption is linked, in part, to tougher enforcement, driving smugglers to recruit federal employees as accomplices." As the New York Times recently reported, "The pattern has become familiar: Customs officers wave in vehicles filled with illegal immigrants, drugs or other contraband. A Border Patrol agent acts as a scout for smugglers. Trusted officers fall prey to temptation and begin taking bribes."