The case for abolishing immigration detention

Lawrence Downes

THE WASHINGTON POST – Migrating to Prison reads like a dispatch from the maelstrom of United States (US) immigration policy. Its author, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, is like a reporter on hurricane duty, leaning into the wind while bands of chaos and destruction sweep the land.

His subject is immigration detention, whose obscene growth in the US he illuminates and deplores. García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver, also publishes a blog called Crimmigration. The coinage enfolds this book’s argument: Too many immigrants are being locked up like criminals, and no one – not even criminals – should be treated this way. Free them all. Give them lawyers and social workers and free them all.

Really? Yes. García Hernández is making a case that would have been far-fetched when Barack Obama was president and is delivering it to President Trump, who has abandoned all sense of lenity, humanity and justice when dealing with people who want to enter our gates, especially brown ones from poor countries. Dehumanisation and violence have marked the administration’s assault on immigration: taking children from their parents, brutalising asylum seekers, fatally neglecting sick and vulnerable detainees.

Free them? How about just not kill them?

But detention abolition is García Hernández’s dream, and he is sticking with it, into the teeth of the present immigration calamity. He begins with the history. Back when America was smaller and more improvisatory, foreigners could more or less walk in, especially you, Mr Northern European Man. Eventual citizenship was little more than a formality, and hardly anybody went to prison merely for being a foreign transplant. But things changed after our first century, and immigration incarceration became a tool used against the Chinese, then certain Europeans, then people in our hemisphere – Cubans, Haitians, Mexicans and, most recently, Central Americans.

García Hernández depicts a country continually adjusting its immigration policies on the fly, toggling between two ugly impulses: exploitation (Get to work) and xenophobia (Now get out). Chinese labourers were welcome until the railroads were done and the racists had their way. Pearl Harbor was horrible news for Japanese Americans but an opportunity for Mexican men who entered by the thousands to work the fields while our boys fought overseas. No sense locking up migrants when you need them to pick onions.

America’s treatment of immigrants has been erratic, but García Hernández argues that its arc has long bent toward injustice. Especially in the past three decades, when the detention “obsession” he is talking about took hold. Note the long time frame. Trump is not the original immigrant brutaliser. He has just deployed the machinery he inherited in a more lethal and reprehensible way, distilled to purest cruelty.

García Hernández outlines the history that gave Trump his xenophobe’s toolbox. A 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton redefined “aggravated felonies” and became the pretext for locking up ever more immigrants for minor crimes. Militarised border security and the conflation of immigration with criminality flourished under Presidents George W Bush and Obama, still the reigning deporter in chief. Obama tried to out-harsh the Republicans to win their support for immigration reform, a cruel-to-be-kind approach that was embraced and echoed over the years by Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and other establishment Democrats.

In the Obama years, the federal government conscripted local law enforcement in its immigrant dragnet, empowering monsters like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who terrorised Latinos in Arizona for years with lawless policing and brutal imprisonment. Obama’s administration worked with Arpaio. Trump pardoned him. He is a bloodstain on both their reputations.

García Hernández is an absolutist, for whom no form of denying free movement to immigrants is acceptable. He thus sees the intolerable everywhere.

Buses carrying people to detention centres are “prisons on wheels”. Steamships that didn’t let migrants disembark until they were inspected for entry were the first (floating) immigrant prisons. Ellis Island, that sentimental gateway, was also a prison, and so of course is today’s archipelago of lockups – federal, local and privately run – that confine immigrants by the tens of thousands across the country.

Migrating to Prison is a long indictment that unfortunately reads like one. It’s a lumpy digest of citations from news reports and other sources meant to show that immigration prisons don’t do what politicians claim they do.

They don’t deter unchecked migration, eliminate predators or punish evildoers. They profit no one but the private prison corporations that feast upon our fears. They destroy untold lives, especially traumatised families fleeing here for asylum, who fit no rational definition of criminals or undesirables.

García Hernández is right about these things. But his book is still disappointing. It’s too pedestrian for a moral exhortation. It’s a song for the choir that reads like a memo, stating with flat affect how America has lost its way. We live in an era of caged children, of shattered families and suicidal parents. The administration’s Orwellian “migrant protection” policy has pushed thousands of asylum seekers to the wrong side of the border, desperately waiting just beyond the threshold of safety, vulnerable to kidnapping and murder. Activist doctors who try to bring flu shots to detainees are blocked and threatened with arrest.

Lady Liberty’s lamp is guttering. This is the horrifying truth of our day, rendered dutifully but bloodlessly in this book.