Editor’s note: There is no way to ignore the elephant in the room– the American government has shut down “non-essential” services/departments. Several writers of the Hivemind wanted the chance to discuss the harm that is being done.
[Trigger warnings: racism, racial profiling, abuse in immigration detention.]
The federal government shutdown has not been good news for undocumented people. Writing at Salon, Josh Eidelson observes that according to a September 27 memo, 80 percent of staff at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal law enforcement agency responsible for arresting, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, are continuing to work during the shutdown. Even at a time when medical care for children with cancer has been shut down as “non-essential”, it seems that immigration arrests and deportations are still considered an overriding priority by the federal government. Meanwhile, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the separate agency in the Department of Justice which is responsible for running the Immigration Courts and employing immigration judges, is operating with a mere 30 percent of its staff. Eidelson – surely rightly – predicts that this will lead to greater delays in Immigration Court proceedings, and to immigrants spending longer in detention.
This is happening against a backdrop of a vicious crackdown on undocumented immigrants which has torn many families apart. Under the Obama administration, the number of deportations has soared, reaching a record 400,000 during the 2012 fiscal year. And the misnamed “Secure Communities” program, in which local and state police work together with ICE to arrest and detain undocumented people, has been rolled out across the country. This means that for many undocumented people, any contact with police – even if they are never charged with any crime – can result in being turned over to ICE custody. A report by the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association in 2011 highlighted some particularly egregious cases of police abuse, including cases in which people were targeted by police solely for their race, ethnicity or accent. In some communities the situation is worsened by local officials with an anti-immigrant agenda, such as infamous Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who openly boasts of his agency’s cruel and violent treatment of undocumented people. ICE itself also carries out raids on workplaces and makes arrests – sometimes subjecting those arrested to brutality and humiliation, as one woman arrested in the 2007 New Bedford raid has described.
The consequences are severe. Once detained by ICE, detainees can find themselves transported without warning to detention centers hundreds of miles from their homes, and families of detained immigrants sometimes face an uphill struggle in trying to find their loved ones. And degrading and dehumanizing treatment of immigration detainees has long been commonplace. In the 2011 PBS documentary “Lost in Detention”, the filmmakers visited the infamous Willacy Detention Center in Texas, and interviewed former detainees and the facility’s former mental health coordinator. Many former detainees reported incidents of serious physical abuse. One detainee, a mother who had been forcibly separated from her young children when she was pulled over in a traffic stop by local cops and turned over to ICE, was in tears as she described the repeated sexual assaults she suffered at the hands of a male guard at the detention facility. When she complained, she was told by another guard that ICE would retaliate against her if she reported the assault. Another former detainee remembered being called “n*****r” by one of the guards, and a third reported having witnessed a detainee being beaten by several guards for “talking back”. Despite this evidence, some politicians have shown an astounding degree of callousness. When the Obama administration investigated abuses in immigration detention, congressional Republicans derisively nicknamed the issue “Holiday on ICE” and complained that conditions in detention were too soft!
It gets worse. Since immigration proceedings are considered to be civil rather than criminal, people facing deportation do not have the same procedural rights as criminal defendants. Many do not even have the opportunity to consult a lawyer. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants facing deportation have no automatic right to government-appointed counsel, and must find their own lawyers at their own expense, or face the ordeal of defending themselves alone in Immigration Court. In 2007, 60 percent of those in Immigration Court had no legal representation, and this number rises to 84 percent when only counting those held in immigration detention. (Source: American Bar Association, 2010, at p. 199) The situation is worsened by an act of Congress, dating from 1996, which forbids organizations receiving Legal Services Corporation funds from providing legal assistance to undocumented immigrants. The Immigration Courts are also seriously understaffed, with immigration judges facing huge workloads and pressure to dispose of cases quickly – something likely to be worsened by the present shutdown.
In this judicial system, so heavily stacked against immigrants, the stakes are high. Deportation to another country means the loss of one’s home, community and livelihood. And for those with partners and children in this country, deportation means forced separation from their loved ones. The mailing lists of community campaign groups tell a terrible story of the casualties of immigration enforcement. They include people like trafficking survivor Sandra, who came back to America to be reunited with her US citizen son; Eugenio, who came to America with his parents and did not know that he would have been eligible for a green card; Justo, who came from Guatemala when he was 16 years old with dreams of becoming an engineer, and was detained after being pulled over for a routine traffic violation; and Norma, a grandmother who worked to pay her daughter’s medical bills. And the stakes are higher still for asylum applicants, who are fleeing persecution in their home countries, for whom the outcome of an immigration hearing can literally mean the difference between life and death. For them, a miscarriage of justice can mean deportation to a country where they face murder, torture and other human rights abuses.
The decision to keep ICE running through the shutdown, while cutting staffing levels for the Immigration Courts, is a painful illustration of America’s priorities: a society in which arresting, detaining and deporting immigrants is considered “essential”, but allowing them the basic right to a speedy hearing and due process of law in the Immigration Courts is “non-essential”. We should remember that the people subjected to this brutal treatment have done nothing more than to come to America seeking a better life, in the face of arbitrary and oppressive immigration laws which make it virtually impossible for many people to migrate legally. Some came to the United States as children and have lived in the country all their lives; some are fleeing violence in their home countries; many have no choice but to migrate. And yet, despite the ample evidence that most undocumented people work hard, contribute to the economy and pay taxes, the federal government still continues to persecute them. We can hope that the efforts for comprehensive immigration reform will come to fruition – but for every day that passes, even during the shutdown, more people are arrested, more people deported and more families separated.
David Neale is a law graduate and future barrister who plans to specialize in immigration and asylum law. He also holds an LLM from Harvard Law School, where he concentrated in international human rights. He is writing in a personal capacity and his posts represent his personal views and opinions, not those of his current or past employers or any other person or body.