Skip to main content

Locking up immigrants is wrong

By Andrea Black, Special to CNN
updated 4:50 PM EST, Mon March 4, 2013
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
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT