As President Donald Trump prepares to choose a new secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., prepares to appear in a Brooklyn court. She is being sued for blocking a man on Twitter who criticized her for calling immigration detention sites “concentration camps.” His opponents seized on the comment. One of their talking points: Hard-working American immigration officers shouldn’t be equated with Nazis.
To some extent, I can understand their point of view.
I recently visited four Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention sites across the country. I met several of their workers. They carried backpacks and clear plastic lunch boxes as they passed through security in the morning, looking tired and bored. As I left each site, some asked me if I had had a “nice visit” and wished me a good trip.
These workers don’t sound like movie villains. Yet they are part of a system that, no matter how it looks, inflicts the horror of trapping people inside.
I saw it in the eyes of the people I interviewed in detention. A 28-year-old Cuban woman told me she spent five days sleeping on the floor in an outdoor cage run by Border Patrol, the “perrera” – a place for dogs. This was followed by 17 days in the “hielera”, a freezing room. She had been denied a shower the whole time.
She recounted this months later when I met her at an ICE detention site in Adams County, Mississippi. She had not seen or spoken to her husband in months since US authorities separated and detained them. She said that last summer an asylum officer interviewed her and determined that her fear of persecution if she returned to Cuba was credible – the first step in making an asylum claim. But she said she had never seen a judge, had no court date, no lawyer, no ICE officer assigned to her. She was alone and trapped: she had no idea what was going to happen to her next, how to move forward with her asylum case and if she would ever be released.
Adams County is part of the immigration detention boom. Detention levels soared to a record high of around 50,000 people per dayfor an annual cost of more than $2 billion. Counties grab holding contracts that provide jobs, though many will be filled by out-of-town residents. New detention sites are opening in the Deep South – a few hours from urban areas with networks of pro bono or low-cost lawyers. Even in large cities, the number of detainees far exceeds the number of lawyers available to help them. The result is that these immigration jails are effectively legal black holes, where legal rights often exist only in name.
“You come here and you can never win,” another woman told me. She had spent three months in an ICE detention center near Miami, separated from her then 5-month-old baby. Her husband, a US citizen, was driving her to Walmart when local police questioned them during a random traffic stop. She was not charged with a crime and she was in the process of applying for residency due to her marriage to a citizen. But the police took her to a local jail and held her for ICE.
“I haven’t seen my baby in three months,” she said, and asked me what was going to happen to her.
Without a lawyer, she risks being held in detention for months or years – and eventually being deported away from her husband and child. According to a study centered on New York immigration case. For asylum seekers, what is at stake is often life or death.
Yet immigrants have been denied the right to government-appointed counsel in their deportation proceedings. I’ve met many who didn’t have enough money to make a phone call from jail, let alone pay a lawyer. Even those who could afford it have struggled to find one, as they’re stuck inside with no access to Google, email, or a cellphone.
MONITOR THE UNITED STATES:A look at race, justice, the media
Our immigration system is designed for them to fail, with Kafka-style limits on their ability to seek legal redress and appeal in federal courts. Navigating this complex and unforgiving set of legal rules is difficult for lawyers, let alone detainees. Some are offered bail, but for unaffordable amounts like $25,000.
Many people I met had never seen a judge, several months after their detention. They had no idea how or when they could be free. They were confused, scared and, in some cases, suicidal. A woman from Cameroon who fled the ongoing civil war after her father was murdered told me she was praying for God to provide her with a way out.
We have an obligation to respond.
Local governments should end ICE detention contracts, if they exist, and ban new ones. Cities and states should solidly fund free legal service providers and bond funds. Large law firms should send their lawyers to the Deep South to work with local pro bono providers to address drastic gaps in legal services. Community groups should lobby Congress to cut funding for detention and pass comprehensive reform legislation like the Dignity of Detained Immigrants Act.
Trump’s new Homeland Security Secretary is likely to increase immigration detention to even higher levels, using the specter of jail to deter people from coming here and the reality of it to punish those who do. do. We cannot afford to be divided by semantics.
Whatever we call them, America’s immigration jails are the opposite of the free society we claim to be. We must do everything to dismantle this system.
Naureen Shah is the Senior Advocacy and Policy Advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union, working on immigrant rights.