Enforcement on Steroids: Homeland Security's Emerging Immigration Police State (Part II)

This is the second in a two-part series looking at immigration enforcement. Readers can find the first installment here.

In a wildly successful disinformation campaign, immigration hard-liners have convinced many Americans that the United States is not serious about enforcing its immigration laws. It's a narrative that plays to people's distrust of government and anxieties about the loss of sovereignty in the era of globalization.

With heightened attention on immigration, that narrative allows conservative lawmakers to advance their larger agenda -- justifying calls for an expanded security state with more surveillance, increased police actions and an almost endless series of increases in Homeland Security spending.

In reality, though, it's a Big Lie, and it's hard to overstate just how big it is. Not only does the United States attempt to enforce its immigration laws, it does so with the authoritarian zeal one would expect to find in the most repressive police states.

Immigration and Custom Enforcement is the second-largest police agency in the country. According to official figures analyzed by the watchdog group Detention Watch Network, ICE rounds up more than a quarter of a million people each year, half of whom have never been charged with a crime. (Being in this country without papers is a civil violation; immigration violations are the only civil offenses for which people are regularly jailed.)

In 2006, almost 200,000 immigrants were deported. With more than 1.5 million people currently in immigration proceedings, a Washington Post analysis found that ICE "holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines."

According to a suit filed by the ACLU, children as young as 3 years old are detained along with their parents in adult prisons leased by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Before the lawsuit was settled by the government, children were dressed in prison garb and guards disciplined them by "threatening to separate them from their parents." According to Amnesty International, "Children are subjected to pepper spray, placed in solitary confinement, and routinely restrained in violation of international standards." ICE runs two "family detention centers," and the Los Angeles Times reported that the agency is planning to build three new ones.

Homeland Security is one of the largest jailers in the world, "but it behaves like a lawless local sheriff," Paromita Shah, an immigration expert with the National Lawyers Guild, told the New York Times. The 280,000 people detained by ICE each year, mostly poorer workers, have limited access to legal help; there is no public defender available to low-income immigrants. According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, 3 out of 4 are left, like characters in one of Kafka's dramas, to navigate a bewildering legal system on their own.

The United States holds around 350 detainees in its "legal black hole" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and people around the world are rightly appalled by the lack of due process afforded them. Three times that many people, picked up within the United States, have been ordered deported but can't be returned to their country and are now facing the prospect of "indefinite detention" -- they could potentially die in prison if the Bush administration and its allies have their way. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the government didn't have the authority to detain immigrants forever, but Homeland Security has resisted the order.

In addition to its own detention facilities -- they're not called "jails" because those being held include many who aren't charged with a crime -- ICE leases thousands of beds in 312 county and city prisons, where a majority of immigrant detainees are held.

These include dozens of private, for-profit prison facilities. The immigration detention system has proven a cash cow for companies like Halliburton, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. "Housing federal detainees typically brings in more per 'man-day,' an industry term for what is earned per detainee," than they can get from state prison systems," wrote Leslie Berestein in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Michele Deitch, an expert on prison privatization at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Union-Tribune that "the private prison industry was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s, until the feds bailed them out with the immigration-detention contracts." Private prison companies that were languishing a few years ago are experiencing a boom in the new immigration police state. CCA, one of the largest, has had a spectacular resurgence based in large part on changes in immigration policy. In a conference call with investors, John Ferguson, CEO of the firm, said he was optimistic that DHS's detention network would continue to expand. "We see that the (2009) budget supports the detention population of 33,000 inmate detainee beds," Ferguson said. "What I am most encouraged about is everything we are hearing says 33,000 is still not enough."

According to "The Business of Detention," by Stokely Baksh and Renee Feltz, five of CCA's "lucrative contracts to detain immigrants have no end date. Several of its other contracts contain 'take or pay' clauses that guarantee a certain amount of revenue regardless of occupancy rates, as well as periodic rate increases. All of the contracts are renewed at a rate of almost 95 percent; any cost savings CCA reaps are kept for the company, not passed on to the taxpayer."

The major players in the growing immigrant detention business are generous donors to the campaigns of immigration hardliners on Capitol Hill. They need to be: According to Detention Watch, releasing immigrants while their cases are pending costs as little as $12 dollars per day, and 93 percent of them show up for court. Each of the tens of thousands of detainees held in ICE's nationwide prison network costs taxpayers an estimated $95 per day, or about eight times as much.

Most of those detained by ICE are unauthorized immigrants, but permanent residents, students, tourists, and people seeking asylum from torture and persecution are also swept up in the maw of Homeland Security in not-insignificant numbers.

While rare, American citizens -- mostly with Hispanic names -- get caught in the system as well. McClatchy Newspapers' Marisa Taylor told the tale of Thomas Warziniack, an addict from Minnesota who was shipped off to an Arizona detention facility a year after a Colorado Judge had confirmed his citizenship. "The story of how immigration officials decided that a small-town drifter with a Southern accent was an illegal Russian immigrant illustrates how the federal government mistakenly detains and sometimes deports American citizens," wrote Taylor.

Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was deported to Mexico last year, sparking a frantic search by relatives until he was finally found, three months later, alone and desperately trying to get back to the United States.

Journalist Lurdes da Silva profiled a number of similar cases, including that of Deolinda Smith-Willmore, a partially blind, 71-year-old New Yorker with schizophrenia who, "for reasons related to her mental illness," told officials she was from the Dominican Republic after a scuffle with a neighbor.

Once in custody, she informed ICE that she was an American, "but no attempt was made to verify her claim," and she was deported. After the government of the Dominican Republic "easily obtained a copy of her birth certificate," she was allowed to return.

In another case, Sharon McKnight, a developmentally disabled U.S. citizen, was detained after returning from a visit to Jamaica by officials who suspected her of carrying a fake U.S. passport. Even though family members waiting for her at the airport showed ICE a copy of her birth certificate, she was deported and "only allowed to return to the United States after a member of Congress intervened on her behalf."

Taylor notes that "Proving citizenship is especially difficult for the poor, mentally ill, disabled or anyone who has trouble getting a copy of his or her birth certificate while behind bars."

An unpublished study done by the Vera Institute of Justice found 125 people with "valid citizenship claims" languishing in immigration detention centers. Nina Siulc, the lead researcher, noted that her study looked at a small sample, and she believes many more American citizens are detained or deported every year.

Perhaps, given their low numbers, these cases don't merit mention, but they point to deep flaws in the system. Moreover, these stories illustrate that, contra the claims of people like Lou Dobbs, DHS is anything but reluctant to lock up and deport people suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

All of this should be a national outrage, but it's also the system immigration hard-liners are referring to when they whine about the government refusing to enforce its immigration laws. The reality is that we're fighting a futile, uphill battle to manage immigration by punishing immigrants while barely even attempting to address the incentives that lead so many Americans to hire an unauthorized worker, and those that drive immigrants to bypass a creaky and dysfunctional legal process.

The claim that DHS is not trying to enforce the immigration laws obscures the fact that it does so with zeal, but focusing on enforcement without deeper reforms simply does not work. The approach has never worked, but we keep repeating it and hoping against hope that this time it will produce different results.

A Better Way

In an earlier era, employers used immigrants -- legal immigrants -- as replacement workers in order to break unions. Now, companies are exploiting undocumented workers, and then, when convenient, using immigration enforcement itself as a union-busting tool (see the first installment of this series). At the same time, with little public attention, a growing immigration police state is developing right beneath our noses -- a system of injustice where detainees have limited access to legal help and face routine neglect.

This is enforcement without broad reform. We can do better.

Undocumented workers make up about 4 percent of the American workforce. The system all but guarantees their existence. A comprehensive, more progressive approach would be to deal with that system. We need to call for a halt to workplace immigration raids, an end to detaining working people who have committed no serious crime, an end to detaining asylum seekers fleeing persecution and legal immigrants who commit some petty crime.

We need to divert the billions we're showering on contractors to lock up nonviolent immigration violators into enforcing our workplace laws. It takes inspectors to make sure businesses are paying the minimum wage, giving overtime pay and not hiring children. We need to expand the avenues for legal immigration -- the system as it stands now is a powerful disincentive to go through legal channels. We need a process that allows undocumented workers to reconcile their status, and then we need to protect their right to organize alongside their American counterparts.

Cleaning up the unregulated economy lessens the incentive for Americans to hire undocumented workers and shrinks the pool of unregulated shadow-economy jobs that attract foreign workers. It's a formula that will protect working people, native and immigrant alike, and raise living standards. And, combined with humane immigration enforcement as the final component, it will result in a largely self-regulating system of legal immigration.

Note: AlterNet just launched a new Special Coverage area focusing on immigration issues -- our 14th in all. Sign up today for our free immigration newsletter, and we'll bring you the latest news and some lively debates on the issue each week.

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