Immigrants arrested for civil violations of their immigration status should never be placed in detention facilities where they are mixed with persons arrested for criminal violations. Yet the practice is common and in yesterday's NYT, Ian Urbina and Catherince Rentz report on an even more disturbing trend which is to put immigrants in solitary confinement, often for long periods of time. Aside from the psychological damage that can be inflicted by these practices, any incarceration, much less solitary confinement, can be devastating for asylum applicants who are in a fragile state and have been subjected to torture and abuse already. (The U.S. detains some persons who are apply for asylum.)
The business of immigration detention is a booming and highly profitable one. When cities have no room in the local jails to put immigrants, sometimes they are placed in privately run detention centers that are under contract with DHS, like ones operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Why are there so many immigrants in detention? The numbers do not match the fact that immigration has gone down since the recession.
There are several reasons for the record number of immigrants in detention. First, President Bush deported a record number of immigrants. Before immigrants are deported, they need to be detained somewhere. Not to be outdone, Obama has deported more people than his predecessor, 1.5 million. So recent administrations have been very aggressive about deporting people. Presumably Obama wants to have these stats in hand to make it look like he's tough on border security so he can pass some immigration relief legislation. But at what cost? Tell that to the record 1.5 million that were deported.
Second, aside from a general aggressive push to deport people, President Obama has pushed the Secure Communities Program even on states like IL who wish to opt out. Essentially the program requires local law enforcement to check for immigration status of person on any routine stop and if the person is found to be an immigrant, they are turned over to ICE. This program has netted a large number of immigrants that are placed in detention before their deportation.
The third reason why detentions are up is about money and politics. As this comprehensive article by Laura Wides-Munoz and Garance Burke in the Huffington Post explain, follow the money. Running private detention centers to house immigrants is big money and it has little oversight from the federal government. No wonder then that the owners of the big three private contractors for detention have been lobbying and giving campaign donations to policymakers to keep up the tough immigration policing and enforcement.
This is sick. It is very disturbing that in all the incarnations of proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, none have addressed the problems of immigrant detention despite many articles reporting abuses of immigrants in the detention system. I am not hopeful that the "comprehensive" immigration bill that passes will have much on detention. Who better to pick on than incarcerated immigrants placed in out of the way facilities who have no family or no one to speak up for them?