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Struggling for immigrant justice

Week of Action to End Detention Quotas
A protest at an immigration detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey during AFSC's Week of Action to End Detention Quotas in August 2015.  Photo: Loris Guzzetta / AFSC

The U.S. imprisons nearly half a million immigrants every year, shattering families and communities across the country.

Fortune A. was still in high school when immigration agents arrived at his father’s workplace one morning and took him away from his family. His father, who had lived in New Jersey for 16 years, had been arrested for violating immigration law. Fortune shared his story with AFSC:

“My little brother who was 7 years old asked where his dad was. I told him that he travelled but will be back soon. He would cry at night and say he will not sleep if his dad is not home. … When I went to visit my father, I would see many kids there visiting their parents, and it made me upset. I always wondered why people would send good fathers and good people to jail. …We want to be with our parents because without them, we are lost.”

Every year, the United States imprisons nearly half a million immigrants in over 250 detention centers—with devastating effects. Detention tears apart families and results in lost wages for households struggling to get by. Inside detention facilities, immigrants can face inhumane treatment that sometimes amounts to torture.

Many immigrants are locked up merely for being suspected of committing an immigration violation and have yet to see a judge. Others await deportation. Some don’t know why they’re being detained and aren’t given a reason when they ask. Immigrants can be locked up for months, even years, without a single charge filed against them.

A quota for incarceration

While federal policymakers sound the alarm over America’s soaring prison population, they overlook how immigration detention fuels mass incarceration in the United States.

Between 1992 and 2012, the number of people sentenced for violating federal criminal laws grew by more than 50 percent. Nearly half of this increase was due to the rise in convictions for “unauthorized re-entry” into the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Until 1998, unauthorized border crossing was considered a civil offense that would not have resulted in detention by the Bureau of Prisons.

What’s driving these convictions? One major source is the creation of unjust federal immigrant policies over the past 20 years, such as the “detention bed quota.” The detention quota policy requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to have 34,000 beds available for detaining immigrants on any given day. That makes ICE the only law enforcement agency in the country that operates with an incarceration quota.

Immigrant detention has become a multibillion industry. Every year, the U.S. spends more than $2 billion in taxpayer dollars to detain immigrants. Not surprisingly, much of that money lines the pockets of for-profit prison corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America, which have together spent more than $32 million lobbying the federal government since 2003 and now run nine of the 10 largest ICE detention centers in the country, according to immigrant advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership.

“On the one hand, ICE is encouraged by the administration to use discretion [in how it handles immigration-related violations] while on the other hand, the agency is mandated by Congress to meet arbitrary and profit-driven goals,” says Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for AFSC and coordinator of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition. “These goals focus the debate on numbers, rendering faceless and nameless the people being deported as well as the communities and families they are ripped away from.”

Living in “iceboxes”

ICE detention facilities look a lot like prisons. Barbed wire fences line the perimeter of many facilities. Inside some centers, detainees are held in what they call las hierleras—Spanish for “the iceboxes”—rooms so cold they feel like walk-in freezers.

Detainees have been refused access to health care, even in emergencies. And for some immigrants in detention, medical attention comes too late. Between October 2003 and May 2015, more than 150 people have died on ICE’s watch, according to the agency’s own count.

Stories of abuse abound in these centers. Women have reported sexual assaults by guards. Immigrants have been placed in solitary confinement—a practice that has been condemned by the U.N. Committee Against Torture.

In Newark, New Jersey, and other cities, AFSC offers legal services to immigrants in detention. “These deplorable conditions should never be imposed on anyone—immigrant or U.S. citizen,” says Amy Gottlieb, associate regional director of AFSC’s Northeast regional office.

Organizing against immigration detention

Arturo Hernandez Garcia and family. Photo: AFSC/Denver
There’s growing momentum in the United States to stop immigrant detention. Last summer, a federal judge ordered the release of hundreds of immigrant women and children held in detention centers, calling their conditions “deplorable” and a violation of an earlier court settlement. National media stories continue to expose mistreatment and abuse in detention facilities.

And immigrants have organized in communities across the country to impact policies that affect them.

In June, hundreds of community members in Colorado, Washington, D.C., and other cities took part in a three-day fast to demand more humane immigration policy. Participants also called for the immediate relief of Arturo Hernández Garcia in Denver and Rosa Robles Loreto in Tucson, two immigrants living in sanctuary, supported by faith communities. 

Arturo, a father of two, had spent nine months in sanctuary at First Unitarian Society of Denver Church, part of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition. The Coalition is made up of seven member congregations and coordinated by AFSC.

Unlike many undocumented immigrants, Arturo was able to return home to his family. Although there is a still a deportation order against Arturo, ICE has stated that it would use its discretion not to deport him when he left sanctuary. The decision was a “partial victory,” Arturo said when he left sanctuary in July.

“There is so much still to be done in my case and to change unjust immigration policies for thousands of families,” he says. “As a community we have to speak up, we have to be visible if we want justice.”

Community-led efforts like these are critical to advancing public policies that honor the dignity of all people, regardless of the country in which they were born. AFSC supports individuals and communities in advocating for change, from accompanying immigrants holding vigil outside of detention centers to taking part in coalitions organizing on legislation.

“Policymakers are disconnected from real people who are facing deportation—people who have lived in this country and are part of our community fabric,” says Alix Nguefack, program coordinator for AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program in Newark, New Jersey. “It’s urgent that policymakers understand the hardship their policies have caused by breaking up families and taking away any sense of hope for a better future for them.” 


Lia Lindsey served as AFSC’s policy impact coordinator in Washington, D.C., working with our immigrant rights programs across the country.