The hypocrisy of imprisoning undocumented immigrants

Tragic photos capturing the horrific realities of many of the world’s refugee populations have been making the rounds recently. And while I choose my words carefully here—refugees are not the same as migrants—it all relates back to the way we treat those seeking out better opportunities for themselves and their loved ones.

The reasons behind the boom in prison populations over the last decade are myriad, chief among them mandatory sentencing laws. But the one that isn’t as widely discussed, but which bares serious discussion is related to America’s migrant population, and the fact that an inexplicably disproportionate number of illegal immigrants are housed in our prisons for no crime other than having crossed the border without documentation.

“Kate’s Law,” introduced in July, was designed to act as a mandatory sentencing mechanism for anyone who crosses the border after previously having been deported (because we know illegal immigrants are the only ones committing crimes, apparently). But this would attach minimums to people for whom their only crime was crossing the border without documentation. Minimums that are set to increase the prison population by over 50,000. The question to ask here is, who benefits from these practices? Certainly not the victims of violent crimes (a small percentage of which were actually victimized by undocumented immigrants), certainly not the economy (remembering that immigrants continue to do much of the work that Americans would rather not), and certainly not society at large.

While I’m sure that there are individuals out there who ardently believe that this is a solution social ills, by and large I am far more certain that there are other motives at play in this situation. And those motives have little to do with concerns over public safety, and much more to do with political expediency and profit.

Immigrants have become a cash cow for private prison companies, but at an extremely high social cost. According to reports, roughly half of them are held in private prisons, a dramatic increase from a few years ago.  Additionally, there appears to be a correlation between those cities and states that have prison prisons, and an increased rate of detainment of undocumented immigrants.

And suggesting that private prisons are acting in their own interests by detaining immigrants isn’t conjecture, they admit it themselves “immigrant detention ‘has been an important part of our business since our inception.’” Every single one of us should be profoundly disturbed that the detention of marginalized and desperate populations is not only an acceptable business model, but one that we’re actively pushing in our prison system. No one benefits from these practices—not the government (except for those localities who are paid a fee by private prisons), not immigrants, not society—except for these companies. When a company praises that police have moved from a “catch and release” method to one of detainment, and we condone their exploitation of that, there is something seriously wrong with us as a society.

This issue is set to play a role in the next election rounds as well, as Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Marco Rubio has exceedingly close ties with GEO Group, one of the key players in the prison-industrial complex. And while CCA—the other big player—claims not to directly support any politicians or lobby, they have actively supported politicians and legislation designed to increase incarcerations, including mandatory minimum sentences. There’s little wonder that Rubio remains one of the few stalwarts advocating stricter criminal sentencing, when his PACs so clearly benefit from the private prisons who benefit from such policies. 

Confounding the ethical dimension of the issue, is the fact US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has actually put in place a quota on how many immigrants should be taking up “detention beds” at any given time. Thus, governments are actively encouraging law enforcement agencies to arrest and detain immigrant. Individuals posing no flight risk (indeed, they’ve come to the US precisely because they don’t want to flee!), who could be safely housed with family until the completion of their hearings, are to be detained in these facilities instead. The more individuals detained, the more money going into the pockets of the GEO and CCAs of the world. And in fact, because these quotas exist, for those facilities that are privately run it winds up costing the public billions. Imagine the outcry if it was revealed that the government set detainment quotas for any other type of crime? And yet for those who’ve committed the crime of wanting a better life, and working hard to achieve it, we utter not a peep…

When people come to the United States, they do not—as the likes of Trump would have you believe—bring their criminals and rapists. Rather, they come seeking safety and opportunity. They come seeking exactly the same thing our ancestors did. America’s response to undocumented immigrants has been to silence their voices, stowing them away from the world to add to the coffers of a handful of private companies. As the campaigns continue, as a society let’s help their voices to be heard and tell the world that our response to the huddled masses is not to imprison them and throw away the key. So the next time you go to share one of those images on Facebook, do not forget that right now, our response to parents of those tragically drowned children is to have them fill our “detention bed quotas.”

 

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