Thoughts on the immigrant detention system

Fred Tsao (cq), policy director with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights (ICIRR) speaks at a press conference at the Thompson Center in Chicago on Monday, April 23, 2012 to denounce plans for a privatized immigration detention center in Crete, Ill. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

Last week, we reported on a federal lawsuit filed against Jefferson County, Illinois by several immigrants formerly held in detention there.

The lawsuit alleges various forms of medical malpractice and inefficacy at the facility. Check out our story, “ICE sued over ‘chronic, deplorable conditions’ in Jefferson County.

Those immigrants allege that they became sick or sicker as a result of ineffectual treatment at the Jefferson County Justice Center, which includes disgusting brown drinking water and  a shortage of capable medical personnel. ICE had to relocate its prisoners from there last November, though they’re planning to return there next month.

In 2011, as a reporter at the New Times in Phoenix, Arizona, I covered the detention system. You can read my extensive cover story, “Huddled Masses: Immigrants Who Fight Deportation Are Packed Into Federal Gulags for Months or Years Before Their Cases Are Heard.”

I’ve always been surprised that ICE detention manages to remain in the recesses of the nation’s consciousness. It’s a truly awful system where immigrants are handed off to local facilities and private prisons for profit.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit should surprise anyone who has ever come into contact with America’s detention system.

1) County Jails Aren’t Appropriate for Immigrant Detention

Everybody knows that the federal government’s immigration system is broken. The Obama Administration acknowledged this in the first year of his presidency, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the government would “reform” the country’s detention system to be “civil, not punitive.”

In English, that means that undocumented/illegal immigrants are not criminals and should not be treated as such.

This is the government’s stance, laid out unequivocally in an internal ICE report, “Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations.”

That report acknowledges “that there are major differences between corrections and detention — mainly that corrections are ‘punitive’ and detention is ‘civil,’” as I reported for the New Times.

ICE specifically stated that its detainees should not be treated handled under a “care, custody and control” philosophy — which is the prevailing standard for county jails across the country.

Of course, that’s what county jails do, as I found out when I interviewed a Pinal County Sheriff’s Deputy in Arizona who said to me, ”Corrections, detention — it’s all the same thing.”

In their push for reform, the federal government obviously still has work to do moving its inmates from county jails where they are handled by men who are trained to deal with criminals.

2) It’s a Big Business

It costs a lot of money to detain immigrants.

The latest total I’m aware of, from the Detention Watch Network, amounts to nearly $2 billion. In Jefferson County, Illinois, the contract brought nearly $2 million a year to the county’s coffers.

The past decade was a big one for the detention industry, too.

In 2005, there were 18,500 beds available across the country to house immigrants. That grew to 34,000 by the end of the decade.

Private prison giants Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group are always looking to expand their business.

They made at least $5.1 billion in the 2000s, according to the Associated Press, and spent $45 million on lobbying.

3) Medical Treatment Can be Spotty

One of the clearest parallels between the events described in Jefferson County and those I reported on in Arizona are the accounts of shoddy medical treatment.

Just like the immigrants in Illinois say they were denied and delayed treatment, so claimed the detainees in Arizona.

One detainee reported being told, “There isn’t much we can do” about her medical complaints.

The reason?

“You’re going to be deported anyway,” an unidentified guard said.

It’s a callous part of the system: Many immigrants held in detention are waiting for deportation (though many also have valid legal claims to remain in the United States) and are therefore treated as transient.

4) What Will Reform Bring?

There’s legitimate momentum in the nation’s capitol for immigration reform this year, as we pointed out in a recent preview of President Obama’s latest immigration speech.

But some advocates are concerned that immigration reform will expand the incarceration of immigrants in the country.

Colorlines recently ran a fascinating article, “How Immigration Reform Could Expand Incarceration of Immigrants.”

Here’s an excerpt from the story about how Washington horse-trading could lead to expanded detention:

“In a move that will help keep the prisons full, less than a month ago, California Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican on the Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation to add long mandatory minimums to sentencing rules for reentry and other immigration related offenses. In one case, his bill sets a sentencing range between 10 and 20 years for people coming back to the country. If passed, either on its own or as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, it would drive up the time these inmates spend behind bars.”

It’s something to watch for, though there are hopeful signs. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy recently called for the nation’s detention system to be “less punitive.

We’ll hope so.

But we won’t hold our breath when there are millions to be made by doling out that punishment.


El autor

Gregory Pratt es contribuidor Vívelohoy

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