As congressional negotiators wrestled their way toward a compromise bill to fund the federal government this week, one sticking point emerged: the demand by Democrats to sharply reduce the number of beds for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And while the details are complicated, Democrats claim that the resulting legislation, which President Trump is expected to sign Friday, will bring the number of beds to 40,520, down from 49,057.
But while well intentioned — the list of problems with the immigrant detention system is long — if the Democrats gets their way, they will likely make conditions much worse for the tens of thousands of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in limbo on both sides of the border.
Cutting back beds highlights two major objections to the detention system. First, the system is an integral component of a private prison-industrial complex owned by a handful of companies, whose profits rely on mass incarceration.
Second, because of the Trump administration’s criminalization of prospective asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, the vast majority of detainees are either Central American families fleeing horrific violence or law-abiding Central American and Mexican members of American society. About 58 percent of detainees have no criminal record, and only 20 percent have committed serious felonies (including selling marijuana).
We have spent the last few years researching migrant flows into the United States, and this data is consistent with research our team has conducted with roughly 300 returned Central American and Mexican migrants. For the most part, Central Americans were detained after crossing the border as they awaited an asylum hearing, while the majority of Mexicans spoke of being raised in the United States, playing by the rules and being apprehended for minor traffic violations — speeding, a broken taillight or driving without a license. None of the handful of deportees who had committed more serious crimes had languished in immigration detention. They had been summarily deported after serving time in federal prison.
Detention facilities also hamper the ability of both prospective refugees and undocumented migrants to gain asylum or to successfully plead their case to remain in the United States. Such facilities limit inmates’ communication with the outside world, a situation further compounded by their remote location. And once locked up, detainees are deprived of the means to earn the income required to hire the professional lawyers they need to have a realistic chance of success.
The treatment migrants receive in detention centers is inhumane. While the traumas that detained children face are well documented, the adult immigrants we interviewed also told countless stories of abuse, including racist taunts, physical aggression and the deprivation of their most basic needs.
Jason, a young man voluntarily traveling back to Mexico by bus, was apprehended on the bus and detained because his visa had expired two weeks earlier. He was sent to a detention facility. He told us of begging for food, only to have a guard toss a burrito onto the floor of a fly-infested cell that reeked of excrement. Israel Concha, a young man stopped for speeding and separated from his pregnant wife, described an immigration hearing in which he was prevented from even touching his newborn son.
Such stories make it easy to see why Democrats pushed to shrink ICE’s capacity to detain people. But cutting back on capacity will not solve the abuses of immigration detention. In fact it is more likely to make things worse (a fact that Democrats have quietly conceded by allowing ICE to adjust the facilities’ capacity if they need to, which is why Republicans claim the actual number of beds allowed is much higher).
It is foolhardy to imagine that, in response, the Trump administration will simply detain fewer people, in order to guarantee them all a bed. If anything, it will double down its enforcement of existing policies, rendering the lives of detainees even more of a living hell.
Increasing numbers of prospective asylum seekers, subjected to the Remain in Mexico policy, would be dispatched to dangerous tent cities in Mexican border towns to wait their turn. Undocumented immigrants would be herded into increasingly cramped quarters or county jails where conditions are even worse.
Florizel, an undocumented Mexican teenager and convert to Mormonism whom we interviewed, described being apprehended and held in a county jail surrounded by pedophiles and murderers, “They left me in the cell for like almost like a whole day without water without food. And it was really cold. I would ask them, ‘Hey, but I didn't do anything!’ And they would just tell me to ‘shut up, friggin’ Mexican.’”
Despite its horrors, many apprehended undocumented immigrants opt for detention as the least awful option. Those without a criminal track record are typically given a choice. They can leave the United States voluntarily, or be placed in detention to fight their removal. The vast majority of people we interviewed chose detention because they want a chance to defend themselves and can’t face the prospect of upending their entire lives by leaving.
Mr. Concha opted for detention with the faint hope of preserving his life in the United States. “I wanted to fight ’til the end,” he told us. “I had a company and all my family was here. I wanted to know the final outcome instead of wondering all my life, ‘What if I would have fought? What if I did have a chance? What if the laws change?’”
To the extent that Democrats are serious about immigration reform, restricting beds is more a gimmick than a solution. Absent the comprehensive reform desperately needed, Democrats should use their new political capital to protect migrant rights. That means demanding more humane treatment at detention centers, guaranteeing the right to asylum for refugees from the region, assuring due process for the majority of undocumented migrants who are upstanding citizens, and requiring that ICE focus its resources on detaining and deporting only those migrants who have committed truly serious crimes.
We know what is needed. What we lack is the political will and commitment to push forward an agenda that restores humanity and legality to a broken and corrupt system.
Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College. Anne Preston is a professor of economics at Haverford College.
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