Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 378 | Enero 2013


Central America

Detainees and deportees: Xenophobia and dollars

“Don’t play with us, keep your promises!,” a Latin American woman demanded of Obama on January 21, the day of his inauguration for a second term. In the demonstration, an empty chair symbolized a scandalous figure: one and a half million deportees in Obama’s first term. This text brings together other shocking figures that reflect both serious human rights violations and substantial erarnings in the “business” of raids, detentions and deportations of immigrants.

José Luis Rocha

Undocumented migrants detained in the Lasalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, wear uniforms of three different colors, constituting a warning of how dangerous they were: blue for harmless, orange for take care and red for scary. This was a second division of human beings. The first and most radical was the dichotomy between “legal” and “illegal.” In Jena the illegal are locked up, the new scapegoat of the nation-state and number one enemies of national security, penned in the same dock along with terrorists and drug traffickers.

It’s the place that was occupied by “reds” between the late 19th century and the twilight of the Cold War, when to be taken as a communist was the most deadly stigma in very different latitudes, as Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos describes in his Memories from Incarceration, a narrative of his arrest and detention in 1934. During the arrest they spat out the accusation that justified his imprisonment: “Communist. Horror, immense contempt, the conviction of being in the presence of a traitor. Just a word, and the indignation, disgust and cold anger manifests itself in light wrinkles: Communist. That epithet annihilated me. Ingrate. Any added gesture or word was redundant.”

Now the guardians of order shout “illegal” and any gesture or word they add is redundant.

Illegals=deportation industry

The construction of “illegality” has been a relatively recent undertaking in US history. After the attacks in September 11, 2001, it received a strong push that keeps it in a state of permanent acceleration. Surveying the north from Mexico and Central America, we noticed that the iron filter produced by the combination of strengthening the wall on the Mexican-US borderline, migration policies that penalize illegal crossing of the border, the mushroom-like proliferation of xenophobic laws that many legislators have gifted their states, an avalanche of funding for detention, deportation and border patrol infrastructure, the strengthening of patrols by civilian paramilitary groups (Minute Men and Ranch Rescue among many others) and the implementa-tion of the “safe communities” program, hatched by Bush but applied with fervent diligence by Janet Napolitano, one of Obama’s lieutenants in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is not impenetrable, although it certainly increases the risks. The combination of all these elements results in a deportation industry that brings the multiplication of migrant detentions as “collateral damage.”

USA: The largest detention
infrastructure on the planet

Reports on conditions in the detention centers have shot up in the past six years. The authors seem to assume that detention of migrants does not escape the laws of production: a sudden and rapid increase of detentions without installing additional capacity produces deteriorating conditions. This is one explanation. Another much more fearsome and considerable one is that conditions were never optimal or attuned to legal standards because such standards have never been effectively established: vast areas exist without regulation, there are high flown policies lacking any grounding, many standards are not legally binding, and internal monitoring is weak and self-indulgent.

If a report from the Migration Policy Institute, put together using data from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), spoke in 2009 of a Chinese citizen detained for five years and other cases of people with much more time than the vaunted average of 31 days, this means the problem of violating migrants’ human rights and treating them as convicted criminals has roots that precede the monitoring that these days so carefully reports on them.

In any case, the reports I will describe have been very eloquent. For a start, they showed that the United States maintains the largest migrant detention infrastructure on the entire planet. In 2012, the migrant detention capacity reached its peak: an average of 34,069 occupied beds and more than 400,000 migrants processed each year (225,390 with criminal charges), leaving the 6,785 beds of 1994 and even the 27,500 of 2006 far behind. In the past 18 years, the detention sweatshop grew at a rate of 1,512 beds a year or almost 126 per month. To the 30,000 plus in prison, 5,400 had to be added in 2009, monitored through a spatial locater fitted tightly to the ankle with a band, the famous electronic shackle.

Fresh out of the oven in January 2013, a report from the Migration Policy Institute revealed that between 2005 and 2012 the budget of ICE, the US agency that ensures the implementation of immigration legislation and thus is responsible for detaining, safeguarding and deporting migrants, grew 87%: from 3.1 to 5.9 billion dollars. It, together with Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for border surveillance, and the Visitor and Immigrant Status and Informational Technology (VISIT), which is essentially the biometric identification systems, garnered $18 billion. This exceeded the $14.4 billion for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, US Marshals Service and ATF, the bureau for the control of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives.

In 2013, $1.96 billion will be allocated for the sole purpose of defraying the costs of maintaining irregular migrants in detention. Migrants appear in the budget as the most pressing and costly threat to be eradicated. The number of people detained by ICE in 2010 was five times the number of criminals prosecuted for federal offenses. In 2011, ICE apprehended 642,000 migrants, repatriated 324,000 migrants without deportation orders and detained 429,000 undocumented immigrants with a considerable bias towards the 288,581 Mexicans, 38,450 Guatemalans, 26,416 Hondurans and 23,792 Salvadorans.

2009: First resounding complaint

This overwhelming growth brought with it greater American civil society interest in what was happening to the detainees. In March 2009, Amnesty International (AI) released a report titled “Jailed without justice: immigration detention in the USA.” In a matter of days, more than 10 million people knew about the human rights violations taking place daily in U.S. immigrant detention centers. Hundreds of members of Congress received a copy of the report. Tempers became strained, and not without reason.

The AI report began with the account of the case of Mr. M, an Albanian beneficiary of asylum in the United States with more than 12 years of legal residence and three American children at the time of his arrest. Accused of buying a stolen vehicle and filling out a home loan form with false information, Mr. M was classified as meat for deportation. The first indictment should have been scrapped due to the principle of third-party good faith buyer which has exempted buyers of stolen goods from responsibility since the Middle Ages. The second indictment points to a very common offense and one of discretionary determination. But after four years of arrest, Mr. M could at last leave prison to wait for the final resolution of his case.

With this and other graphic cases AI showed the American people that the enormous growth of the deportation industry meant immigration authorities had to sign contracts with around 350 state and county prisons to be able to “accommodate” the migrants processed. Some 67% are housed in these prisons, while the remaining 33% are detained in federal centers or with private contractors, at an average daily cost of $95 per detainee. The proliferation of detentions has resulted in multiplication of abuse. The report mentioned that alternatives to detention maintain a rate of 91% compliance with court commitments and cost just $12 a day. Despite this evidence, conventional forms of detention remain in force at the expense of human rights and the taxpayers’ pockets.

Depression, extortion, suicide...

An ICE report mentioned an average detention time of 37 days, but AI revealed that many migrants had been held months or even years. Furthermore, a previous study conducted in 2003 showed that successful asylum seekers had spent an average of ten months in detention, while some waited three and a half years for a process with an uncertain outcome.

Frequently detained migrants despair of their situation, sinking into lethal depressions. A growing number commit suicide, without the authorities being able to anticipate or prevent it. AI recounts the case of Geovanny García-Mejia, a young Honduran man of 27, detained in the Newton County Correctional Center in Texas. Referred to the medical unit, he was found writing on the floor with his own blood, but was returned to the common gallery after a psychologist entered in its dossier: “I have no idea why he is in the suicide cell.” Twelve days later, on March 12, 2006, the day of his 27th birthday, his lifeless body was found hanging in his cell. The local sheriff concluded that the guards, who should have been checking him every 15 minutes, did not do night rounds.

AI gives full details of cases of exorbitant sums demanded by judges as bail for migrants who face trials and try to use this option to avoid prison. There are frequent cases of $15,000 and $25,000, and one as high as $80,000. Judges’ arbitrariness and abuse was evident in cases such as that faced by the son of an American mother, who had an excellent work record and behavior and more than ten years of residence in the United States, from whom the judge requested $30,000 dollars. The report also revealed what had been thought impossible: deportation of legal residents and citizens, accused of having committed minor offenses that served as a cheap excuse to expel them from the country where they had lived most of their lives.

Touching a sore spot

The Amnesty report publicized Justice Department estimates that 58% of immigrants face a deportation process without legal representation. This figure rises to 84% among detained migrants. Such defenselessness seems exceptional in a political system that provides free legal representation to those who lack the means to afford it. But the migrant, or the American whose citizenship is challenged, belongs to a different category from fully-fledged citizens: if they cannot afford a lawyer, they will be left to their own meager fate.

Moreover, while in the past it was possible to apply to reopen a case alleging the lack of effective legal representation, it is currently impossible to rectify lawyers’ mistakes through this mechanism. Migrants are not provided the right to a lawyer and if they have one who gets it wrong, rectification of the error is no longer provided for under the law. But good or bad, legal advice is crucial: it has been proven statistically that whoever has legal representation in going to trial is five times more likely to succeed than those who do not. Those who dare to represent themselves face the difficulty that manuals, digests of laws and explanations of the US legal system are rarely available in their languages in the detention centers’ poorly stocked libraries.

Among other abuses, negligence and deficiencies that need correcting, AI also denounced the inappropriate and excessive use of appliances to restrict movement: handcuffs and chains on the abdomen, limited access to phone calls or contact with relatives and lawyers, mixing detained migrants with criminals, poor access to medicine and medical care, lack of physical exercise and verbal and physical abuse.

Despite the fact that the AI report rested for the most part on individual testimonies and rarely on statistically representative data, it touched a sore point, was enormously revealing and established the parameters that later would be followed by other reports. It went a step beyond the precedent in challenging the placing of the principle of sovereignty above human rights. In a broader concept of rights than the one that grants the principle of sovereignty a license to abuse, infringe the rights of and imprison foreigners, it established its opposition to the use of detention as a tool of immigration control: every person has the right to liberty and security, including protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, regardless of their legal status, in accordance with article nine of the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

2006: How to capture “illegals”

By 2006, US public opinion’s interest in migration policies and detentions had skyrocketed thanks to two triggers in the form of announcements. In November 2005 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a plan called Secure Border Initiative, aimed at strengthening the implementation of migration policies to reduce “illegal” migration. In April 2006, the DHS revealed a previously unknown feature of the plan: ICE would expand its operations to capture all undocumented workers and individuals who might have violated immigration laws, including refugees, migrants with permanent legal residency and those who, although permitted to reside in the United States, might have been accused of any of the offenses detailed in an extensive list, including non-violent robbery, theft, drug consumption or trading, counterfeiting, receiving stolen property, perjury, fraud, deceit and tax evasion.

Any of these crimes would be sufficient cause for detention and deportation, according to laws adopted in 1996: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which only ten years later were being applied in full. Legal residents were deprived of the hearings to which they could previously turn. And ICE began to use the category of immigration fugitives, which mimics that of fugitive slaves and sounds too much like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to refer to those who were sentenced with a deportation order but refused to obey it. It makes no difference if the sentence was handed down in absentia and sent by mail to the wrong address, as has been shown in many cases.

With the hornets’ nest kicked and under a great deal of scrutiny, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), belonging to the DHS, conducted a study on detention conditions in five ICE centers in 2006. Most of the findings are limited to the operation of the system: concerns about environmental health and safety in three of the five centers, absence of manuals on rights and duties of prisoners in two centers and a failure to meet ICE regulations on general conditions, especially in disciplinary policy, inventory of the inmates’ personal property, classification of inmates and accommodation mixing inmates with different levels of dangerousness.

A passing mention of the fact that there are no procedures enabling detainees to denounce human rights violations was the finding that most openly broke with the common sense of what can or cannot be conceded to undocumented migrants. The main complaint linked to the status of Latinos was that in three of the five centers, manuals of guidelines and procedures were not in Spanish.

2007: health in detention centers

In 2007 Human Rights Watch conducted the study Chronic Indifference: HIV/AIDS Services for Immigrants Detained by the United States, where the poor monitoring carried out by ICE to prevent deaths from HIV/AIDS, provide basic care to those who were affected and monitor such care was evident. Consequences: untreated infections, increasing resistance to medication and death. The study gives an account of those who died from “chronic indifference” but could have survived with appropriate treatment and those who did not have their suffering eased and lost their lives because of the system’s negligence.

In contrast with these findings, and perhaps with a desire to contradict them, the DHS OIG issued another report on ICE policies in 2008 related to the death of detainees and supervision of detention centers. Between January 2005 and May 2007, 33 detained migrants died Only two cases are analyzed and the conclusion is that those deaths were caused by poor pre-detention health conditions.

A year later, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center brought out its report titled “Dying for Decent Care: Bad Medicine in Immigration Custody,” in which a variety of testimonies appear regarding denied or delayed access to medical treatment, denied or erroneous medical prescriptions, unsuitable treatment for mentally ill patients, cruel and abusive behavior on the part of medical staff, unhealthy conditions in facilities and lack of independent monitoring. The report indicates that, in contrast with the cost of more than $100 per prisoner, there are alternatives to detention that would cost no more than $12. In 2009 ICE allocated these alternatives for only 3.7% of its annual budget ($63 million).

Also in 2009, Human Rights Watch presented “Detained and Dismissed: Women’s Struggles to Obtain Health Care in United States Immigration Detention,” a report on medical care for women in ICE detention centers. This report detailed the almost total lack of care of female-specific needs due to negligence and cost reduction. Women inmates were denied access to mammograms that were prescribed before being arrested, pap smears, contraception, pregnancy care, breast pumps and even sufficient sanitary napkins. With these two reports, devoid of statistical representativeness but rich in specific testimonies, the credibility of the self-indulgent ICE report was rigorously questioned.

United Nations, civil society
and academia accuse

In March 2008 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants presented a report on his mission to the United States. It makes courageous complaints, with particular emphasis on the arbitrary transfer of migrants to centers where it is difficult for them to contact their families, social networks and lawyers. For many, being prevented from working results in being unable to pay for attorneys and win a migration trial. It stresses the terrifying effect that raids have on communities and among the young children of migrants.

But by focusing on the negative effects of correct application of immigration laws, its report falls into a compromising ambiguity. On the one hand, by censoring application of the laws, even when following them to the letter, it issues a global condemnation of current US immigration policies and in that sense, its accusation is cutting and systemic. On the other hand, by not expanding on human rights abuses and violations openly opposed to the legislation in force, or by doing so in a very superficial way despite the abundance of sources available to a UN rapporteur, it tacitly disseminates the false perception that ICE proceedings always adhere to the law. Further allegations showed that no such legal nicety exists at ICE.

Six months later, the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) delivered another well considered slap in the face to ICE with an extensive report titled “Detention and Deportation in the Age of ICE,” which devotes a section to exposing the inadequate provision of medical services in ICE centers. Between 2004 and 2007, 66 people died in ICE custody. One migrant died of cancer while the guards ignored his agony. The autopsy revealed that he had a broken back. All those interviewed by the ACLU said they had to wait weeks to get an appointment with the doctor. The seriousness of this situation takes on lethal dimensions with the knowledge that drugs are not allowed and Tylenol is the only medicine accessible without a prescription.

The ACLU report made even more shocking revelations: migrants treated with sedatives and physically subjected, forced to sign and stamp their fingerprints on documents they could not read or understand, deported without notice, imprisoned for years while waiting for the resolution of labyrinthine legal processes, housed three to a cell barely suitable for one or in overcrowded galleries where they slept piled up on the floor, mistreated by bad tempered guards from hell who shout racist insults at them and deny them access to the bathrooms, obliged to share cells with violent criminals, stripped for periodic checks, poorly fed and drinking dirty water and deprived of access to law libraries, educational services, newspapers and other reading materials. ACLU reported that ICE self-monitoring is carried out by announcing visits to the centers to give them time to present their best features and that it focuses on the metaphysics of policies and not the actual conditions of detainees.

In early 2009, the University of Arizona published its report “Unseen Prisoners: A Report on Women in Immi¬gration Detention Facilities in Arizona.” It displayed findings identical to those of the UN Rapporteur and the ACLU. The anti-ICE choir had joined their voices in different registers: United Nations, civil society and academia.

Mexico: Jailer of Central Americans

With similar findings, a report of the International Federation for Human Rights (FHR) in March 2008 managed to go further into the specific situation of migrants, mostly Central Americans, who were arrested in Mexico.

Its aim was to reveal violations of the rights of undocumented migrants in their passage to the United States and it therefore devoted extensive space to deaths in the desert, dangers in crossing the border and abuses during arrest. It also covered human rights violations in detention centers in Mexico. The FHR visited three of the 119 Mexican immigration retention centers, 51 permanent and 68 additional ones for peak seasons with an abundance of foreigners “who cannot prove their legal status” and pointed out the mismatch between the rules of the National Migration Institute, which establishes a maximum 90-day detention and in some cases indefinite detention, and article 21 of the Mexican Constitution, which limits administrative sanctions to a maximum of 36 hours. It also claimed that children were being subjected to the same periods of detention as adults, covered by a body of law that makes no distinctions or exceptions, except to increase its rigor.

It reported extortion, abuse, sexual abuse, verbal insults and robbery against migrants in the migratory centers, which are often overcrowded and with poorly equipped health services. The Tapachula center stands out for its overcrowding: migrants must sleep in the corridors and are vulnerable to illness due to saturated health services, low quality food and lack of permanent access to safe drinking water. In none of the centers are there procedures for migrants to make complaints.

Migrants detained in Mexico not only lack basic information about their case (why they were arrested in Mexico, length of detention, procedures to be followed, decision taken) and access to legal representation, but are also frequently threatened with prolonged detention by officers (sub directors of centers, custodial staff and social services agents) if they undertake a legal action, such as resort to a writ of amparo (an order for protection against the action of authorities) or file criminal charges against the officers who repeatedly violate their rights. The organization Without Borders stated that it had not found a single migrant being deported who had a written order of deportation in their hands.

Two more reports prove
that migration is a crime

With the 2009 Amnesty International report, monitoring efforts received a guide about what to analyze and with what means. So two monitors appeared who are still around and have made an effort to put forward questions on the basis of statistical representativeness, based on ICE databases.

The Global Detention Project reported that of the 32,000 immigrant detainees existing in March 2009, almost 60% had no criminal charges against them, not even a charge of having entered the country illegally or having crossed the border without documents. Let us keep in mind that in the United States detention is only mandatory for people with a criminal record. Yet more than 400 internees without a criminal record had been kept in prison for at least a year, a dozen for three years or more and the immigrant from China for more than five years. Almost 10,000 had spent more than 31 days, the average figure with which ICE illustrates its efficient handling of detentions. The average time of imprisonment has shot up from 2.7 to 26.3 days, an 874% increase between 1978 and 1992. In 2009 it reached 114 days, if we include the days before and after the removal order.

In September 2009 Donald Kerwin and Lin Yi-Ying released a devastating report on detentions: “Immigrant Detention. Can ICE meet its legal imperatives and Case Management responsibilities?” Some findings are similar to those of the Global Detention Project. Others are even more horrifying. According to estimates by Kerwin and Yi-Ying on the basis of data from ICE, of 32,000 detainees who were in ICE centers on January 25, 2009, 18,690 were immigrants with pending cases. On average they had been in prison for 81 days, 74% had been there less than 90 days, 13% between 90 days and six months, 10% between six months and a year and 3% for a year or more. The 10,873 detainees who had received final deportation orders had an average of 72 days’ imprisonment after receiving the order. A full 58% of the detainees had no criminal charges against them. When they did, the most serious charges were people smuggling (13%) and immigration offenses (6%). In the era of the search for terrorists, migration itself had clearly become a crime.

Children captured and detained

The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an extensive report in 2010: “Immigration in the United States: Arrests and Due Process.“ The text reaffirms Amnesty’s essential position. “Immigration detention must be the exception and dictated by very specific procedural considerations, such as ensuring the undocumented immigrant’s appearance for proceedings or, in certain limited cases, the need to protect public safety.” The in-depth critique: in the absence of a system of civil detention, migrants are treated as convicted criminals. The point of the OAS: while they are detained by ICE, even migrants with criminal records should be subject to civil detention. The OAS noted that, despite inadequate monitoring of ICE, this institution failed in 2008 and 2009 to comply with detention standards in 40% of the centers.

In addition to reiterating these violations, the OAS, following the same lines as AI, added a new and essential problem: the detention of children with their families or unaccompanied. The OAS denounces cases of parents who have lost custody of their children after having been detained for a little over a year. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act provides that, when a child has remained in state custody for 15 of the past 22 months, the father and/or mother lose custody.

In the years prior to the report, the border patrol arrested an annual average of 90,000 unaccompanied minors. The OAS showed concern because, due to their rural locations, many shelters for unaccompanied children have obvious difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified staff in health, social work and other areas. But its main complaint was aimed at more serious problems: lack of an effective and confidential observation system and lawsuits for physical and sexual abuse.

“I felt and believed I was bad”

The background to these claims was a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission titled “Halfway Home: Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody,“ published in February 2009. The report was co-authored by a law firm that includes 1,100 lawyers in 21 offices in Asia, North America and Europe. Its customers include 100 companies on the list of Fortune. Field work for the report denounced border patrol conditions that are inappropriate for children, a number of children not transferred to shelters in the established 72-hour period, concentration of shelters in rural areas that affect their quality, hostels providing information to the DHS, which makes family reunification difficult, lack of legal representation and excessively restrictive environments.

Retrieving this flag with passion in 2012, the International Detention Coalition launched its report “Captured Childhood,” which collects testimonies of children detained in various centers around the world. Carolina, a 16-year-old Honduran arrested in the United States, recounts: “We had freedom in the house, such as what we could eat, when to play, but we couldn’t go out. I cried a lot because it reminded me of when I was locked in during my abduction.” Immediately after his capture, Sergio, a Salvadoran of 16, was sent to the “ice box,” a room without windows or natural light. The air conditioning was so strong he couldn’t sleep. He was subjected to this strategy by the border patrol to discourage his irregular entry into the United States. The psychological effects of these confinements are devastating. Carlos, a Honduran of 16, recounts that they put him in “the pit,” a windowless room, for three days: “I felt like an animal. I felt, even I thought, that I was bad, that I had something that other people could see and I couldn’t. And that’s why they made me believe that I acted badly, that I behaved badly, that I deserved to be there. I began to believe that I deserved it.”

Consequences of detention on the family

With concern about juvenile detainees, growing attention was focused on the after-effects of detention on minors and the consequences for their family life. The report “In the Child’s Best interest?” from the University of California at Berkeley stands out. It revealed that not only irregular migrants were being affected. Implementation of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act meant that between April 1997 and August 2007 the US government deported 87,884 migrants with permanent legal residency, an average annual quota of approximately 8,700 migrants. More than half of them had at least one child.

This anti-immigrant groundswell expelled the parents of 103,055 children from the country, 88,627 of whom (86%) were American citizens. More than half of these children (44,422) were not even five years old when their father and/or mother were repatriated. To the children affected must be added the 217,068 American relatives: husbands, wives, brothers and sisters.

The UC Berkeley report emphasized the vulnerability of these children’s rights and the pernicious imprint that separation had left on their physical and mental health. But by focusing exclusively on legal residents, perhaps looking to land a blow on American public opinion better predisposed toward this group than those without documents, the report had gone back to draw a line that other reports, activists and scholars had tried to erase: the line where a document and state-authorized permits are the only things that ensure the exercise of rights. Whatever the rationale for that unique focus on permanent legal residents, it can be refuted with a proposal to analyze all cases, distinguishing between the circumstances and figures of each group of migrants: naturalized, resident, workers with temporary permits, undocumented with less than two years of having arrived and undocumented with more than two, five, ten, twenty years of residence.

The Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice has conducted annual analyses of this issue but from a non-exclusive perspective, since the majority of their survey respondents and interviewees are undocumented. Work with deported families in Guatemala and El Salvador led to at least two scientific papers on the impact of detention and deportation on Latino migrant children and their families. Among their findings they pointed out that parents with higher levels of legal vulnerability report a greater impact on the family environment during detention and deportation that affects their emotional well-being, their ability to provide income and maintenance of their family relationships. Their children often have problems in school.

These studies also reveal that many immigrant children live in “mixed status” families, where one of the parents is undocumented and the other is a US resident or citizen. Among Latinos, 40% of second-generation migrant children have an undocumented parent. They are the ones most likely to end up with their families fragmented or even ripped apart by deportation. The policy of giving up American sons and daughters of deportees living in the United States for adoption so that “the minor’s interests prevail” ends up causing enormous damage, with periods of detention that impoverish families and fill the children with rage, confusion and anxiety.

2012: Amnesty International returns

In 2012, with Operation “Safe Communities” going full steam ahead because Obama gave it sumptuous banquets, although it was engendered by Bush, Amnesty International published a new report: “On hostile ground: Human rights violations in the enforcement of immigration laws in the southwestern United States.”

The section on detention is relatively brief, but contains highly eloquent testimonies, such as that of a 33-year-old Mexican living in the United States since 1998 describing his experience in a detention processing center in Tucson, Arizona: “They told me some of my rights, but they told me I had no right to be in this country, my country is Mexico, that I was wasting my time with the immigration process because it was impossible. I felt like they were trying to brainwash me. They told me I had to be in jail for at least six months if I wanted an immigration judge. They tried to put my thumb print on a sheet of paper. The agent twisted my arm up behind my back and pulled the other arm forward when I tried to put my hands in my pocket. He continued to ask why I didn’t sign, because I had no right to be in the country. He was shouting at me to scare me and make me sign.” This Mexican had committed no crime. Other detainees, whose testimonies are included in the report, had committed minor offenses. Between 2010 and 2012 there was increasing criminalization of behavior that had previously been allowed so NGOs and journalists looked into the history and economic reasons for this proliferation of criminality.

The detention business:
Some suffer and others win

Prisons used to be a monopoly of the nation-State. In most if not almost all countries, prisons are state property and can only be managed by its officials, trained and accredited as members of the police or judicial system. In the neoliberal age, enterprising entrepreneurs offer detention services to the US government. They rent out cells and guards from hell.

Between 1999 and 2010, private prisons in the United States played host to between 10% and 16% of all detainees. Enterprise has no limits. It offers something that would never have been believed could find a buyer: it sells captivity. That is to say, it sells a service the consumption of which is imposed by the State on certain individuals. The State continues to define who has to consume it, but has resigned from the exclusivity of its provision. Public security privatization has reached such an extreme that it seems to have been taken straight from a novel by Orwell.

Why this resignation? The US federal government argues that subcontracting arises from cost reduction: in prisons run by ICE the daily cost per prisoner was $119 in 2007 and the private sector dungeons charged less: $88 per customer. Low wages worked the miracle: private jailers received a wage of $28,790 per year, while public jailers earn an average salary of $38,380.

But the invoice private prisons pass on to taxpayers has been starting to swell. A decade ago, the government paid $760 million to private companies. In 2012 the cost to taxpayers exceeded $5 billion, paid in 13 contracts of varied duration for guarding 23,000 “criminal immigrants.” The unit cost per day, which was $80 in 2004, reached $166 in 2012. And now the government can’t say no to private jailers. To afford this rising tide, Barack Obama, bro to Latinos when he’s in the middle of a campaign, requested $97 million extra in 2011 and another $50 million more in 2012.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the consortium that obtains most contracts from selling imprisonment. Its website proclaims that it is “America’s Leader in Partnership Corrections” and, recuperating from the downpour of attacks, warns: “Welcome to CCA, the national leader in providing correctional solutions to federal, state and local government. Our company, the first of its kind, was founded in 1983. Our approach to public-private partnership in correction combines cost reduction and innovation in business with adherence to strict guidelines and sustained government supervision. CCA benefits the United States by protecting public safety, employing the best people with solid careers, rehabilitating internees… All the while saving the dollars of hard working taxpayers.”

GEO: world leader in private prisons

Activist Peter Cervantes-Gautschi told us that “in the past four years approximately a million immigrants have been jailed in hazardous detention centers in the private prison system. A growing number of reports and research confirm that for many of those pushed into this system, it is a colossal nightmare. Children were abused, women raped and men died from a lack of basic medical care. These centers are operated by two companies supported by Wall Street: CCA and the GEO Group. Recently, GEO agreed to pay compensation for the physical abuse by their employees of prisoners who were stripped naked and examined in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and New Mexico. In another case GEO had to pay $40 million for the wrongful death of a prisoner detained in Raymondville, Texas. GEO has also faced a lawsuit from seven children who were sexually abused by a guard during their detention at a GEO center.”

CCA, with headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee and the GEO Group, with headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, are the two biggest companies in the detention business. They made profits of $1.73 and $1.6 billion in 2011. According to Cervantes-Gautschi, together they are the most powerful behind-the-scenes force of legal anti-immigrant efforts. George Zoley, president of GEO, helped raise more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Thanks to this, he was awarded a contract in 2003 to manage the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This is a transnational business: GEO is the world’s largest supplier of prisons: 101 Centers, 73,000 beds and 18,000 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. It advertises itself with the commercial verbiage and guilt-free conscience of those who sell refrigerators or biodegradable diapers: “As a leading provider in the industry since 1984, we offer our customers high-quality, cost-effective services with innovative programs and ground-breaking treatment approaches.” Whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, Americans are the largest buyers of GEO services. In the United States GEO has 59 centers and 61,279 beds. With this customer, GEO managed to move from a net income of $16.9 million in 2000 to $78.6 million in 2012.

September 11: The life-saver watershed

9/11 worked a miracle. It was the life-saver watershed in the detentions market. Steve Logan, former CEO of Cornell, commented on the future of the prison industry at a conference for investors: “I think it’s clear that with the events of September 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. More people get caught so that’s a positive for our business. The events of September 11 are increasing that level of business.” 9/11 saved them from bankruptcy, on the edge of which they were teetering in the late 1990s. The persecution against migrants unleashed after the attack on the twin towers rescued them.

We do know now for whom the bell tolls. Not for the mourning, it’s a clarion call celebrating the triumph of the mercenaries of the slave dungeons. The figures sing for themselves: between 2002 and 2011, the number of inmates in private prisons grew by 355%, in contrast with a growth of 28% and 67% in the federal and state public sector. Six states accommodate more than 25% of their prisoners in private centers: New Mexico (46%), Montana (36%), Hawaii (35%), Vermont (34%), Alaska (29%) and Idaho (29%), according to a report issued by CCA in 2009. Almost two and a half million migrants have been washed up in these detention centers since 2003.

How a “captive market” grows

This new market dynamism didn’t happen by spontaneous generation. CCA declared in its 2010 annual report that “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” Ergo: it’s crucial to extend the area of what is legally punishable. That’s why in December 2006, coinciding with or encouraging the wave of raids, GEO and CCA spent $6 million to pressure politicians to apply the 1996 legislation in all its rigor: those captured in the raids were prosecuted for crimes such as possession of false documents, fraud in their tax returns, identity theft, etc.

This created a potential “market,” a captive market, never a truer word spoken! More than 35 million new offenders in the blink of astonished eyes. The vast clientele could include the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants and many more millions of residents and even citizens penalized because of what they look like. ICE organized 30,407 raids to provide cell meat in 2007, double that of 2006, and thus the number of detained immigrants leaped from 256,842 to 311,169.

This sudden “demand” had an impact that was reflected in the Wall Street thermometer: CCA shares, which in 2004 were trading at $12.15, rose to $26.86 in March 2008 based on the confidence of investors who know that CCA does cost-benefit calculations with the eye of a good jailer: in some cases it charges $200 per day for each detainee, when the national average is $54.

The cost to taxpayers shot up. From 2006 to 2012, the ICE budget for capturing, detaining and deporting immigrants increased by 51%. In 2011, the web site Seeking Alpha, adept at Wall Street analysis, reported that GEO income for health-care services in jails reached $1 billion in March 2009, a gain of 5.8%. CCA profit margins in 19 states in the same period were more than $1,900 million. That’s how a triad was consolidated, interlinked by the division of labor: migrants suffering, jailers earning and taxpayers paying.

Jailers, politicians and legislators
have common interests

Crazy as it may seem, this bonanza was not enough to retain big fish like J. P. Morgan, one of the main GEO shareholders. Calculating that the time of the fatted calves was over, possibly alarmed by the pressures of migrants who demonstrated in 2006, wrongly assessing the democrat victory and fearing the inadequacy of police personnel to sustain a growing number of captures, J. P. Morgan sold its shares. Wells Fargo, new majority shareholder in GEO, and Bill Ackman, director of Pershing Square, the main owner of CCA along with Bank of America, did not stand idly by. GEO and CCA turned their sights back toward the state and local level.

This is how the Arizona SB1070 law was hatched. Jan Brewer, governor of this state, received funding from CCA and had two former CCA lobbyists on her team as senior advisers: Chuck Coughlin and Paul Sensman. Former Arizona Senator Russell Pearce, who functioned as a key player in pushing through SB1070, was at that time an executive member of the task force on public safety and elections of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), chaired by the National Rifle Association and created by the CCA, among others. With more than two thousand state legislators, a third of the total, in its pocket, ALEC is the most voluminous nonpartisan association of state legislators, according to its drum rolls on its boisterous web site. The 200 corporations and interest groups that comprise it also make it the largest public-private partnership, with partners of such long lineage as Exxon Mobil, Blue Cross, Boeing and Wal-Mart.

Prior to introducing it to the Arizona Senate, Pearce submitted his bill to the usual 30-day review by ALEC lawyers, corporate representatives and legislators. The draft of the dreaded SB1070 was cooked up in ALEC’s ovens. Researchers have shown that after every ALEC assembly, each legislator returns to his own region with a thousand bills, 20% of which manage to crystallize into laws.

Anti-immigrant laws
nourish the prison industry

Arizona SB1070 caused a domino effect of anti-immigrant legislation that CCA and GEO knew how to drive and continue to encourage by funding election campaigns, often dividing funds evenly between Democrats and Republicans. According to Cervantes-Gautschi, this xenophobic legislative wave was able to spread like wildfire due to inaction by the federal Congress, thanks to a combination of the prison industry’s investment in lobbying and election campaigns and a dangerous association of personal interests. The majority of Congress members, he says, have personal investments in CCA and GEO. For example, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi is an investor in Pershing Square, the protection fund that holds the greatest number of shares in CCA. At the peak of the roundups, the then Vice President Dick Cheney was investing his nest egg in Vanguard, one of the largest GEO shareholders.

These and other legislators receive thousands for their campaigns. Arizona’s Republican Senator John McCain received $71,000 dollars from CCA for his failed presidential campaign. Republican Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky received about $59,000. Rogers addressed the first subcommittee on national security and often criticizes ICE for not having enough beds for detainees. From 2003 to the first half of 2012, candidates in state Houses and political parties received more than $5.32 million from private prison companies.

In the ten states where they lobby most, these companies managed to invest $8 million in the last ten years. From 2003 to 2010, CCA took control of the half of the beds with which the private sector participates in the prison industry, by investing $14.5 million in lobbying the DHS, ICE, the Department of Justice, the Office of Budget Management, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the two houses of Congress.

According to Detention Watch Network, the five corporations that sell prison services to ICE allocated more than $20 million to lobbying from 1999 to 2009. The bulk of that money ($18 million) came from CCA and $2 million from GEO. Having outdone themselves, GEO received $622 in contracts up to around the fat sum of $996.7 million from 2005 to 2009 for every dollar it had spent on pressuring the federal government, while CCA received a return of $34 for every dollar spent on lobbying up to $330.4 million.

The personal economic interests of politicians are so closely linked to the correctional enterprises and the latter exercise such aggressive lobbying that a decline in the prison industry is not foreseeable in the near future. In their capacity as members of ALEC, multinational corporations and conservative politicians, CCA, GEO and the National Rifle Association collaborated in an alliance to seek approval for two legal initiatives: the so-called “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes and you’re out.” The first requires that violent offenders serve at least 85% of their term before being eligible for a reduction in their sentence. The second means that a third conviction shall be punished by life imprisonment. Both aim to prolong the consumption of prisons, to increase demand. Tom Ridge, first director of the DHS, was a member of the task force that promoted these initiatives. An investigation by the magazine In These Times showed that those promoting the SB1070 were as dedicated to border security as they were to promoting the fortunes of CCA and GEO.

Hector, Maribel, Fabiana, Leticia, Josué...

The implementation of SB1070 and the 1996 laws continue to increase migrant detention, extending indiscriminately from the undocumented to citizens. No one is safe from the degrading combination of criminality and market forces. The Arizona ACLU, in its June 2011 document “In their own words,” on abuse in Arizona detention centers, told the stories of captured migrants that show the expansion of the captives market against time (residence), tide and valid documents.

Hector had lived in Tucson since he was adopted at the age of five by an American couple. He has an undergraduate degree in political science. In 2010 he was arrested for a traffic violation. With the excuse that his fingerprints did not identify him as an American citizen, he was detained for five months in the Florence Correctional Center, one of the private prisons subcontracted by ICE.

Maribel was arrested while driving. Just because. She hadn’t committed any offense: “They stopped me because I have dark hair and look like a Latina.” She showed her identity card and the police decided: “That’s not you. It’s a false document.” She was sent to Florence for a month and was only able to get out on bail to continue fighting her case.

Fabiana has lived in the United States since she was 12 years old. She is a legal resident. Mother and wife of Americans. She was arrested by the police in Maricopa during a raid. After an interrogation, she was transferred to ICE cells, from where they sent her back to the county cells. On ascertaining she had no criminal record, she was transferred back to ICE. Rather than releasing her, ICE prescribed three weeks in Florence until she was able to get out on bail to follow her case through the migration courts.

Leticia, a Guatemalan mother of two Americans and with 20 years residency in the United States was detained for 21 months in Eloy and Florence Detention Centers, both owned by CCA.

American Josue was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In spite of presenting his American birth certificate, he was transferred to ICE to make business for private companies.

The crime of “looking like one”

Tennessee also saw an increase in detentions. In “Conse¬quences & Costs,” ACLU focused on what was happening in Davidson County, Tennessee: driving had become a crime there because driver’s licenses were no longer issued to undocumented immigrants as of 2006. Some 41% of foreigners were arrested due to minor traffic violations, charges attributed to only 20.7% of Americans arrested. A police officer even said about some Latinos: “They’re not doing anything wrong, but they have a suspicious appearance.” Having the wrong face had become a cause for arrest.

ACLU denounced the pronounced ethnic bias of the arrests in Davidson. The community consequences of this clearly targetted persecution were a reduction in complaints for lack of confidence in the police (42% of Latinos interviewees were aware of crimes but hadn’t reported them) and terrorized communities. The consequences for CCA and GEO: more prisoners in its prisons, more dollars in its coffers.

In questioning this system, Americans’ common sense is frequently appealed to. It’s what we could also classify as resorting to selfishness, visible in reports that do not emphasize or even mention human rights abuses, or question the right to deport and separate families, such as the report issued by the Immigration Policy Center in October 2011, which calculates that $166 per detainee per day means $60,590 per detainee per year while, in contrast, alternatives to detention focus on good supervision can reduce costs to $14 or even 30 cents per person per day.

Migration policies are at
the service of big money

The most committed sector of US civil society’s rejection of the privatization of security and their efforts to eliminate it has its roots in ethical motivations: profit from imprisoning people, promoting the creation of a captives market and treating investment in chocolates and the prison business with identical moral asepsis are reasons enough for rejection, but they are not necessarily related to a novel perversity in the ambitions of big money.

This rejection sometimes goes further and involves two new developments, one practical and the other in the underlying concept, which highlight the contradiction in this field between the strategy of big money and the liberal framework of human rights. The practical development is the deterioration in the quality of imprisonment, linked to the privatization of prison services: several studies have shown that the profit motive and reduction in costs inevitably translate into poorly trained personnel, workers frustrated by their low wages and employee turnover, traits which in turn increase the number of cases of violence, abuse, neglect and low health care standards. The insatiable thirst for profit also means that to those “captive consumers” (never a truer word) extortionate prices are attributed for basic services. Those prices make it impossible for frequent contact with family members and lawyers.

The largest migrant detention center in the United States Stewart Detention Center, a prison managed by CCA in Lumpkin, Georgia, charges inmates $5 for every 12 minutes of calls to telephones outside the state. Food rations are so spartan that some migrants must pay $40 per week for extra rations. In order to pay for these services, the prisoners are offered the enviable opportunity to earn between $1 and $3 a day for eight-hour shifts as cooks, cleaners and barbers, with 1,752 internees subjected to this regime of labor trafficking.

Another new development with sufficient empirical basis but little analysis in the reports, refers to the concept of the justice system. The day-to-day implementation of US migration policies has taken a radical legal turn in placing human rights under the guardianship of big money. Treating state punishment as a commodity whose derivatives form part of the majority of allegations contained in the reports not only segregates a deterioration in the quality of life of the prisoners for the sake of cost reduction, promoting raids and anti-immigrant policies to increase demand and the runaway increase of the consumption of prison services induced through the increased length of imprisonment. It also places public policies at the service of individuals and submits human rights to the principle of cost-benefit calculations. In the end, migratory policies are designed in Wall Street and in the gossip shops where conservatism and prisoner-dollars whisper their intrigues.

“Fear thy neighbor as thyself”

Various organizations have taken up the fight against detention in the United States and worldwide. Foremost among these are the Global Detention Project, the International Detention Coalition, Detention Watch Network and reporters from The Business of Detention. Their fiercest struggle is directed against the detention of migrant children. They also tend to have other more comprehensive proposals. Broadly speaking they take on and repeat the daring proposals that Amnesty International launched in its 2009 report:

1. US congressional approval of a ban on arrests of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Detention would be a last resort.

2. Assurance by the US government that alternative measures, such as regular reporting or paying an affordable bail, are always explicitly considered before resorting to detention.

3. Passage of a law to ensure all immigrants and asylum-seekers individual access to hearings on the legality, need and appropriateness of imprisonment. Detention could be used only if the government shows in each individual case that is a necessary and proportionate measure. All detention decisions should be subject to a formal, regular review by a judicial body to avoid any discretion on the part of ICE officials. Immigrants must be advised on options available to put an end to their detention and how to access them.

4. Adoption by the US government of detention standards compatible with the exercise of human rights in all detention centers that accommodate migrants. It should do so through laws or policies and procedures of mandatory application issued by the Department of Homeland Security. There should be effective independent monitoring to ensure compatibility with detention standards and accountability for any kind of human rights violation.

These proposals sketch a future of possibilities upheld by law. But they are founded on a tenebrous landscape where fear of the other is weaving a tangle in which some are willingly imprisoned in citadels and others fall in rented prisons. “Fear thy neighbor as thyself” was the title of a talk in which the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek sought to articulate the most disseminated philosophy of our time. For Zizek, the most extreme example of the implementation of this ideology is the United States, the land where everything can be an aggression: “Touching someone, looking at them too much... Just as we want cakes without sugar, we want a decaffeinated neighbor.”

From the state of well-being
to the state of prisoner-being

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman reminds us that “Bourdieu noted that the state of California, praised by certain European sociologists as the paradise of freedom, dedicates to the construction and maintenance of prisons a budget that far exceeds the total of public funds allocated to higher education.” The state of prisoner-being has replaced the state of well-being. In this environment, not only migrants are exposed to this criminalizing tide. Arrests of migrants are perhaps the most shameless, but not the only demonstration of this propensity to assist our neighbor by putting him behind bars. I refer to the evidence: USAID granted Mexico US$28 million in 2010. That year Mexican deportees made up 73% of ICE’s production. In order for the foreign aid the United States gave Mexico that year to have been at least equivalent to the funding for the deportation of Mexicans, USAID should have transferred not $28 but $4.179 billion. There’s the rub.

The prison: Symbolic rite of exclusion

But the United States insists that prison and deportation is the best medicine for people’s audacity to settle on its territory without asking permission. Why is that? Bauman has an answer that won’t please many people: “Spatial confinement, incarceration with varying degrees of severity and rigidity, has always been the main method for dealing with sectors of the population impossible to assimilate, difficult to control and likely to cause problems. There were barracks for slaves, as well as for lepers, the crazy and ethnic or religious outsiders... In a sense, the whole police-judiciary process that ends in prison is a extensive and rigidly structured rite of symbolic rejection and physical exclusion. Rejection and exclusion are humiliating with any intention; their objective is that the rejected-excluded person ends up accepting their imperfection and social inferiority.”

This is the meaning of the rituals in which Arpaio, re-elected in 2012 for his sixth term as the mean sheriff of Maricopa County, parades chained migrants through the streets of Phoenix: look at them, brutalized migrants. Now we also we know that ritualistic atavism has a practical meaning: profit from prisoner-dollars. The shackle that grips the human rights of migrants has two arms: xenophobia and big money.

José Luis Rocha is a member of the editorial board of envío and the Sociology Institute at the Philipp University of Marburg, Germany.

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