Skip to main content

Locking up immigrants is wrong

By Andrea Black, Special to CNN
March 4, 2013 -- Updated 2150 GMT (0550 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andrea Black: Release of hundreds of immigrants from detention centers is good step
  • Parents are taken from children, she says, sent far away to jails with appalling conditions
  • Black: Ever-growing detention centers run by private businesses with lobbyists
  • Release people not subject to mandatory detention, she says, use alternatives

Editor's note: Andrea Black is executive director of the Detention Watch Network, a national nonprofit coalition that monitors the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system and advocates for change. She was previously the executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants detained in Arizona.

(CNN) -- Of all the inhumane conditions in the detention of immigrants, the most serious is simply the condition of being locked up. Detention means that parents are taken from their children and shipped hundreds of miles away to jails where visits are impossible.

Immigrants who have lived in the United States for nearly their whole lives lose their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods while locked up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails, trying to fight deportation to a country they don't even remember, often without even a lawyer to help guide them through the complicated morass of immigration law.

That is why it was good news to learn that hundreds of immigrants returned home to their communities and families after being released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement from detention centers across the country last week in anticipation of the federal budget cuts

This action is moving us, as a nation, in the right direction. Locking up thousands of immigrants is not critical for the agency to fulfill its enforcement mission. And now, we've been given an opportunity to consider better alternatives.

Andrea Black
Andrea Black

The impact of this decision was far more than fiscal savings: It brought loved ones home to their families, returned breadwinners to their communities, and released asylum seekers from confinement that exacerbated their past trauma.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Having worked as a lawyer for eight years with thousands of immigrants detained in the Arizona desert, I have seen the devastating, and ultimately ineffective, results of our rapidly expanding detention system.

Our office regularly received desperate phone calls from wives, mostly U.S. citizens, whose husbands were in detention. Often the husbands were the sole breadwinners. The women and their children faced eviction from their homes because they could not keep up mortgage payments. They were forced to go on welfare, and their children's school performance suffered. Among my clients were asylum seekers who fled persecution and torture in their countries, only to find themselves locked up behind barbed wire for months and even years as they sought protection in America.

Since 2003, more than 2.4 million people have passed through immigration detention facilities in a network of over 250 jails and prisons. At an average cost of $164 per day per person, ICE spent more than $1.7 billion in 2011 to detain a record 429,000 immigrants. Much of this money goes to private prison corporations that have contracts to house nearly half of the immigrants in ICE custody every day and are looking to grow their business -- having spent millions of dollars during the past 10 years on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level.

Immigration detainee release under fire
DREAMer fights her family's deportation
Civil suit over Ariz. 'racial profiling'

Immigrants in detention include lawful permanent residents with deep family and community ties, undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades as part of mixed status families, survivors of torture, asylum seekers, pregnant women, military veterans, and the infirm. No matter their background, they are confined behind bars for months and sometimes years as they await a hearing to determine whether they can remain in the U.S. legally.

Conditions in detention are punitive and inhumane. A recent set of reports compiled by Detention Watch Network members highlighted conditions in 10 jails where immigrants are held that exemplify the egregious problems inherent throughout the immigration detention system.

We found immigrants in detention wait weeks or months for medical care; have inadequate, and in some cases absolutely no, outdoor recreation time or access to sunlight or fresh air; are offered inadequate and nutritionally lacking food; and are subjected to the use of solitary confinement as punishment, as outlined in a report by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights.

Their families suffer extraordinary difficulties trying to visit their imprisoned relatives. In some facilities, families drive hundreds of miles to visit their loved ones, only to be forced to "visit" with them via video link in a separate building -- not because they pose a risk, but because the facility does not want to incur additional costs for in-person visits.

The remote location of many facilities also interferes dangerously with people's ability to get legal help to fight their cases. They often have no access to a lawyer.

In the words of one immigrant detained at Baker County Jail in Florida, "We are like dogs, we can't see the sun or the sky. Actually, even a dog gets to go outside."

Since 2003, at least 131 men and women died while in custody in these centers, which include private jails, county cells and federal centers, according to ICE reports.

It does not have to be this way. Alternatives to detention -- such as community-based programs that offer legal and social service support -- are effective and significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $14 per day. These alternatives to detention yield about a 93% appearance rate before the immigration courts and allow people to remain with their families and communities.

Given what we know about this hidden and punitive system, it is heartening to hear from members around the country that immigrants are being released from some of the worst facilities outlined in the reports. ICE should expand on this recent action by releasing everyone not subject to mandatory detention, and using alternative programs for those that are.

The government's action must also be a part of a larger initiative to reform our immigration detention system.

One critical step is the congressional repeal of mandatory detention laws that have been responsible for tripling the number of people in detention. Under these laws, up to 70% of immigrants in detention are required to be imprisoned, without any individual assessment of their risk to public safety, while the government tries to prove that it has the authority to deport them. This practice is contrary to our practice in the criminal justice system and wholly un-American.

Until Congress acts, the Obama administration must renew its commitment to urgent reform of the detention system by closing the most egregious detention facilities, aggressively working with nongovernmental organizations to promote community-based supervision programs for those in proceedings, and pushing for legal regulation and third party oversight of the remaining detention centers.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Black.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT