This article was first published on October 23, 2015 at CQ Researcher.
Is U.S. Immigrant-Detention Policy Justified?
By Mizue Aizeki
Deputy Director, Immigrant Defense Project
Is it justifiable to imprison more than 400,000 people each year — including longtime green card holders, children and families, trafficking survivors and asylum seekers — for civil violations of immigration law? To lock them up for months, sometimes years, in violation of basic human rights? To hold them in harsh conditions with inadequate medical care and with only limited ability to challenge their confinement? To rip parents from children, children from parents, however deep their roots in the United States? Simple justice and fairness say “no.”
The U.S. government claims mass detention deters unauthorized immigration; ensures that immigrants show up at deportation hearings; and keeps public-safety threats off the streets. But the overwhelming majority of immigrant detainees pose neither a public-safety threat nor a risk of absconding. And people who are fleeing danger or seeking to reunite with their families in the United States are not easily deterred.
But even if these justifications stood up to scrutiny, we have to weigh them against the heavy moral and human costs of policies that include locking up people in jails — 34,000 in immigrant detention on any given day, per a congressionally mandated “bed quota.” These include the profound emotional, psychological and even physical toll on detainees and family members and the damage done to the rule of law when we tolerate a second-tier system of “justice” where due process rights — including the right to effective counsel and to a fair hearing — are routinely disregarded. These costs are a big part of why international human rights standards recommend nations use immigration detention as only a last resort.
We should not accept the status quo of mass detention and deportation as necessary, acceptable or normal. Since 1996, the number of immigrant detainees has increased fivefold, in an atmosphere of rising xenophobia and “law and order” hysteria.
The same punitive mindset that brought us the hyper-aggressive policing and draconian sentencing laws that put millions of people — especially people of color — behind bars is now increasingly directed toward immigrants. It has driven the increasing criminalization of immigration and the passage and aggressive implementation of harsh immigration laws, including provisions that make detention and deportation a “mandatory minimum” punishment for a growing range of offenses.
Mass incarceration is increasingly seen as a moral and public policy disaster, even by some of its original architects. Mass immigration detention and deportation are equally indefensible. Both must end.