The Christmas season is often thought of as a time to spread joy, hope, and generosity. What better time to think about how our country treats immigrants, particularly asylum seekers. They come to this country seeking mercy because they are unable to return home due to the risk of death or injury as a result of their politics, religion, ethnicity, or race. And our response, frequently, has been to lock those peoplelock those people up indefinitely in shameful, inhumane, prison-like, for-profit detention facilities up indefinitely in shameful, inhumane, prison-like, for-profit detention facilities. These brave and vulnerable people could use some of our generosity, courage, and hope.
Make no mistake, U.S. immigration detention centers are a nightmare. In 2015, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on immigration detention centers and concluded that many were not complying with our most basics law regarding humane treatment of detained immigrants and detained unaccompanied children. The Commission reported on scores of detained immigrant children who were incarcerated without a parent in a detention center. The report found that: 85% of the children reported that their holding cells were unbearably cold (many of the children used the word “hieleras,” Spanish for freezer); 37% received insufficient food, fewer than three meals daily; 25% were not given or offered enough water; 49% were not permitted to call a parent, their consulate, or speak to a lawyer; and 56% of the children were placed in three-point shackles, affixed to the wrists, waist and ankles. These are unaccompanied children who have not been accused of any crime here. The children report shocking stories of abuse, rape threats, strip searches, and other humiliations.
These children are already fleeing devastation. Once here, the asylum process can take from two to six years. By definition, each applicant is ready to demonstrate that she escaped a truly dangerous and awful situation. And while they wade through the slow immigration process, we frequently force them into these inhumane immigration detention facilities. It used to be that only immigrants with certain criminal records were held in detention, but that is no longer the case. Now anyone can be held. Perhaps that is because people are making money off of the situation?
In 2014, roughly 77% percent of immigrants seeking asylum, many of them women and children, were detained while their cases were decided. They are among the 400,000 immigrants detained annually, two-thirds of whom are detained in a for-profit system that costs tax payers $1.7 billion annually. To be clear, these immigrants are not being locked up as a form of punishment, for being convicted of a crime after being afforded due process. They are being locked up in these hell holes merely because they are defending themselves against deportation, and because someone has a profit motive to lock them up.
Take, for instance, Stewart Detention Center, which has been the subject of repeated hunger strikes by detainees. It is a 1500 bed detention center in Georgia run by the for-profit company Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”). Complaints there include: inadequate food; maggots in food; sweltering, unhygienic living conditions where detainees are unable to bathe, wash their hands or flush the toilet; and a dangerous lack of medical and mental health care. Stewart reportedly also has a “forced labor program” with compensation of $1-$3 a day. While imposing these types of inhumane conditions, CCA’s revenues have climbed more than 500% in the past twenty years.
The incoming president has promised to immediately deport 2-3 million immigrants. These people will first pass through our immigration system and many will be held in our immigration detainment centers. The for-profit prisons running the private detention centers have a huge stake in this and, not surprisingly, are tremendous political donors, spending tens of millions to support candidates and lobbying efforts. Please do not forget the real people on the other end of this profit, people seeking sanctuary in our country. We still celebrate the words on the Statue of Liberty that proclaim our country’s welcome to those fleeing oppression. Like many of our founding values, this one too seems to have been tossed aside.