Back in 2006, Congress mandated that there always be at least 34,000 detention beds filled in our 200-plus immigrant detention centers across the US. This government sanctioned quota has been a boon for the private incarceration industry, which costs us, the taxpayers, up to $5 billion each year.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the only law enforcement agency in our country to have such a quota of inmates – if it’s not met by 90%, we the taxpayers have to pay a fine to private corporations such as GEO.
But as illegal crossings from Mexico have fallen to near their lowest levels since the early 1970’s, in order to meet that quota, ICE has had to look in every nook and cranny of our criminal justice system to vacuum up foreign-born, undocumented and legal US residents alike convicted of any crimes that could render them eligible for deportation – the vast majority of these offenses quite minor.
The Obama administration’s order to review deportation procedures must be bolstered by our own response as tax-paying citizens and fellow human beings to demand that such fascist and un-American policies be amended immediately. The country that I love was founded on civil liberties such as due process and humane conditions of prisoners – and immigrants were our founders. Detainees’ access to legal help is completely inadequate and often another money-making opportunity for crooked attorneys; medical care is a cruel joke. Consider how much trouble our governor has been in for shoddy medical care in our state prisons – and that’s for documented prisoners. The undocumented are treated even more poorly.
The response of my church has been to form the Detainee Friends Project. We pen-pal and visit with detainees at Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernadino, soon to become our country’s largest Detention Center, unless a huge expansion led by ICE is stopped. It cannot be described how isolated, forgotten and hopeless these detainees feel. They are often placed in solitary confinement.
It cannot be described how isolated, forgotten and hopeless these detainees feel. They are often placed in solitary confinement.
Through our work we met Carlos Hidalgo, who was wrongfully detained there for 11 months for trying to cash a bad check given by an employer. He has become an activist, and joined us when we lobbied US Representative Judy Chu a month ago. She was so disturbed by Carlos’ story and the facts we presented that she promised to visit Adelanto Detention Center in person, and bring lots of press. According to a reliable source in Washington D.C., Member of US Congress Judy Chu will be visiting Adelanto Detention Center in the next couple weeks.
Conditions are so bad at these detention centers that the inmates are hunger-striking – though having been force-fed, we’ve heard little since then. Hunger-striking is the last resort of protest for a prisoner, and an apt one, because the quality and quantity of food given to detainees is so abysmal – snacks are for sale only at astronomical cost to the detainee. Another way for corporations to make money.
At what point do we, the tax-paying, free citizens wake up and realize we are living in a corporatocracy? What will it take for us to begin connecting the dots between the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the War on Immigrants? To understand that although it is out of sight, out of mind for most Americans, when we send in our tax bill we acquiesce to the demands of the war profiteers, forfeiting the values and policies that make America the democracy we claim to be? Will it take every immigrant detention center to commence hunger strikes? Every privately-owned prison?
Those targeted by the Wars on Drugs, Terror, and Immigrants are mainly people of color. As the Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave reminds us, they have historically been the most vulnerable targets for those who aim to make the easy buck. But those languishing in today’s privately owned immigrant detention centers and prisons are canaries in the coal mine, and really, they already got the rest of us – if only, so far, in our wallets. For those of us who are awake, they also got us in our conscience. When and how will they finish the job? We ought to be asking ourselves this, lest we no longer recognize the country that we love. Author James Baldwin said, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own . . . For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
Rev. Hannah Petrie