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President Barack Obama briefly mentioned the need for immigration reform in his State of the Union address last Tuesday. Some supporters of fair and humane immigration policies appreciated the mention, while others saw the rhetoric as “more of the same,” without any real policy commitment. The president did not offer specific proposals that would allow immigrants to legalize their status or end the massive deportation crisis that has torn apart their communities.
On Jan. 30, House Republican leaders issued a set of “standards for immigration reform,” meant to start negotiations. Many rank-and-file Republicans immediately rejected the proposal, as Democrats geared up for new talks.
The immigration debate has been going on for many years, and will likely go on, while immigrants, their families and communities continue to struggle with the consequences of detention and deportation. At one point over the next few months, the total number of people deported under the Obama administration is set to hit 2 million, about the same amount deported under two George W. Bush terms of office. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the administration deported about 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children.
The White House and U.S. lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — agree on the need for immigration reform. But instead of developing fair policies, they continue to fund enforcement mechanisms that push people into a complex detention and deportation system. This scheme has made it impossible for immigrants to remain with their families and loved ones in the U.S., even after months or sometimes years of detention and surveillance. In 2009, Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) an unprecedented mandate to fill 34,000 immigration detention beds every day. Under this requirement, many people are detained in large part simply because of the need to fill quotas, not because they were deemed a danger to society or flight risk.
Such unfair treatment affects people with many different immigration statuses: those who were admitted to the country legally or who entered without inspection but are unable to adjust their legal status due to the restrictive immigration laws and a backlog of applications that keeps them waiting for years; asylum seekers who come to the U.S. to seek relief having fled torture and political persecution in their home countries; and green card holders who are facing deportation because of a criminal conviction. For example, J, an immigrant from Mexico, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his case, has been in the U.S. for close to 20 years. J, a father of four children who were born in the U.S., was recently sentenced to serve time in the local county jail because he was caught driving without a license in a state that does not issue licenses to residents without immigration status. After serving his time in the county jail, J was held by immigration authorities for deportation. Due to community pressure, J was released and is home with his family, but he still lacks a legal status.
The creation of a fair and humane immigration system begins with the will to treat immigrants with dignity.
I have experienced the cruel vagaries of the system firsthand. My husband has been fighting deportation for eight years based on an old criminal conviction that has haunted him and our family. The continuous ordeal has made it impossible for us to plan our lives or live without fear of separation.
Those who are locked up on civil immigration charges in this network of jails and detention centers don’t have a right to an attorney if they cannot afford one or find a free legal service. Many immigrants are subject to “mandatory” detention, meaning that they are not eligible for a release on bond, or even for a hearing to determine bond eligibility. Those who choose to challenge their deportation may be detained by immigration authorities for years as their cases wind through the system. They are often cut off from contact with loved ones, not least due to remote locations of the facilities and overpriced telephone calls.
Alternatives to detention
In every election season, politicians, including the president, lament America’s broken immigration system and stress the need for comprehensive reform. And yet we wait for action. House Republicans are expected to release immigration legislation that would likely increase funding for immigration enforcement, including along the U.S border with Mexico.
The proposal will continue to reinforce heavy-handed tactics, never taking into account the impact on individuals, families and communities. When a person is deported, the consequences are felt by the wider community: by neighbors, schoolmates, employers, co-workers, businesses and society at large. While Congress continues to fund these inhumane policies, no funding exists to repair the broken hearts and families that stay behind.
It is possible, however, that the system isn’t broken, but working just as intended, by bringing extraordinary profits to private companies and public facilities that contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcementagency (ICE). County jails contract with ICE at an average rate of $120 per bed per day, and often push to get the contracts. For example, the Essex County jail in New Jersey signed a $250 million five-year contract in late 2011. Currently, they also benefit from commissions on telephone calls out of jails. Essex County earns 54 percent commission on each phone call made from the jail, reaching close to $1 million in 2012. The other 46 percent goes to a private phone company, which charges exorbitant rates to inmates.
While New York and several other states don’t allow the practice, the system is legal in New Jersey. Prison companies and their contractors hold detainees and provide cover for the administration to show that they are cracking down on what they see as the immigration “problem.”
The profits don’t end with detention-center contractors. There are separate and very profitable contracts between DHS and private companies that run the so-called “Alternatives to Detention” programs. These approaches, including the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), are meant to serve as true alternatives, but instead become another form of detention. Participants are required to wear GPS ankle monitors and are subjected to frequent home visits and telephone check-ins, all of which bring enormous profits to the contracting agencies. Those who are on these programs express humiliation and frustration at their inability to live their lives during the course of their immigration hearings.
Despite stories of broken families, heartaches and inhumane treatment of detainees by ICE and other enforcement agencies, our policies continue to get harsher and harsher. Pleas to restore compassion to America’s immigration policies have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.
But the struggle continues, and more and more people are stepping up to challenge the system. Across the U.S. immigrant groups and supporters are engaging in citizen activism to educate the American public and to bear witness to the suffering caused by current policies. Campaigns and petitions to help individuals caught up in deportation proceedings are organized daily. We are calling on Obama to use his executive power to stop the deportation crisis while Congress debates and adds more money to an already overstuffed immigration enforcement budget.
The U.S. must restore a human face to its immigration policy, and develop laws that can truly reflect our rich history of immigration and commitment to human rights. The creation of a fair and humane immigration system begins with the will to treat immigrants with dignity.
Amy Gottlieb is a program director at the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights program.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.