The Big Business of Family Detention

When President Barack Obama made it his first act in office to shut down Guantánamo Bay prison, he effectively ended one shameful chapter in our country's embarrassingly large book of human-rights abuses. It was not so much redemption as a reminder that this country has a long, long way to go when it comes to detention, due process, and the Geneva Convention. It's not just alleged terrorists that are suffering from our inhumane treatment. It's also children.

The United States is currently holding 30,000 immigrants in detention while they await hearings. The country operates three family immigrant detention centers, the most notorious of which is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, a former prison currently under the private management of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The 600-bed center detains families who are awaiting asylum or immigration hearings, a major departure from past federal policy. Pre-September 11, families charged with immigration violations (which are not criminal violations) or who came to the country asking for asylum were generally allowed to live independently as long as they agreed to attend a hearing.

The transition from "catch and release" to "catch and detain" has been riddled with controversy. Immigrant detention became a boom business under the Bush administration, which supplied the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency's (ICE) $1 billion-plus detention budget. Private contractors get $200 a head per day for family detention and lobbied hard for the policy shift: Mother Jones reports that "in 2004, when Congress passed legislation authorizing ICE to triple the number of immigrant detention beds, CCA's lobbying expenditures reached $3 million; since then, it has spent an additional $7 million on lobbyists."

The bottom line is not just economic, however. Children and families have suffered inexcusable indignities under this new policy, which treats them like convicted criminals instead of asylum-seekers and potential citizens. Despite the fact that myriad human rights and community groups -- such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Immigration Studies -- have condemned the practice of detaining children in prison-like environments, ICE is seeking to open three new family detention centers, doubling its capacity. As of this writing, ICE still hasn't released the names of the winning contractors and/or locations, but the announcement is expected to be made sometime this year with the new facilities scheduled to open in 2010.

Imagine this: 7- and 8-year-old children dressed in hospital scrubs, savoring the last few minutes of their one hour of recreation time a day before they are brought back to their family cells, the heavy metal door closing them in for another painfully boring stint. No toys allowed. This nightmare was a reality for too many children when Hutto first opened in 2006. The Women's Refugee Commission, a New York-based nonprofit that conducted a study in collaboration with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, found that "immigration detention facilities for families in this country may be re-traumatizing families and their children, many of whom are seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries." The commission reports that on a visit to the facility, one child slipped a note into the hand of an outside visitor that said, "Help us and ask us questions."

Thanks to lawsuits against CCA, children can now wear pajamas, play, and attend classes during the day, and pregnant women are receiving some neonatal care, but the spirit of incarceration continues. Immigration officials claim that family detention is necessary in order to prevent immigrants and asylum-seekers from fleeing the country. However, even ICE admits that alternatives -- like its own pilot program in 2004 where specialists were assigned a limited caseload of detainees whom they monitored using home visits and telephone calls -- have a 94 percent appearance rate overall.

Family detention centers may provide a meager 6 percent reduction in flight risk, but this country pays a far bigger price in lost integrity. We lock up children and their families -- many of whom have suffered economic deprivation, exploitation, and oftentimes, domestic and sexual abuse -- before they've even had a hearing as to their immigration status.

Renee Feltz, a multimedia investigative journalist based in New York City who co-runs a project on the business of immigrant detention, reports that waiting in such unbearable conditions often brings immigrants -- especially women with children -- to their knees. "Many of the people we talked to are so miserable in these facilities that they will eventually agree to being deported even if they think they have a legitimate claim to asylum," Feltz says. "They just want to get out as fast as possible."

In this way, one of the first lessons we teach potential new citizens about America is one of cruel, Orwellian hypocrisy. You must earn your freedom, if at all, via imprisonment. Dignity comes only by bearing undignified conditions. The last administration's obsession with family values is glaringly absent from this Civics 101 course. We welcome children who have heard tall tales of the abundance and liberty of America with rehabbed cells and 10 minutes to wolf down an inadequate lunch of cheap starches on a prison tray.

First and foremost, immigrant family detention must stop. On Jan. 21, Grassroots Leadership, a Southern community organizing group, launched a campaign with this goal, calling it 100 Actions in 100 Days. Given the new administration, hope for immigration reform, and a renewed focus on addressing corporate corruption, it's an opportune time to reactivate the country around this issue.

But there's an even bigger picture here that we must not lose sight of. Immigrant detention, on the whole, is riddled with corruption, inefficiencies, and indignities. Comprehensive immigration reform is a vital component of our country's next few years of healing and reform.

And an even bigger picture still: We live in a society that has bought blindly into the privatization and proliferation of our prisons. It's not so surprising that we force immigrant children to live in cells and wear hospital garb when you consider the national tendency toward incarceration, racism, and xenophobia.

We've got a lot to heal. Let's start by abolishing family detention centers immediately.

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