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Ending Immigration Detention in America

Molly Lauterback,
Immigrants' Rights Project
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November 2, 2011

The Department of Homeland Security assumes that mass detention is the key to immigration enforcement. But in fact, our detention system locks up thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers. Throughout the next two weeks, check back daily for posts about the costs of immigration detention, both human and fiscal, and what needs to be done to ensure fair and humane policy.

“This isn’t a question of whether or not we will detain people. We will detain people, and we will detain them on a grand scale,” said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The grand scale that Morton speaks of authorizes the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees each year, the overwhelming majority of whom pose no danger or flight risk that would warrant their detention. So once again, let’s ask the question, why is it we are locking up record numbers of immigrants, at tremendous cost to families, communities and taxpayers, with little gain to public safety?

In the two weeks since PBS Frontline aired its documentary Lost in Detention , ACLU has been running a blog series sharing stories from individuals who have been locked up inside immigration detention centers across the country for months and even years. Stories like Lobsang Norbu’s, Jose Franco-Gonzalez’s, and Reverend Raymond Soeoth’s are unfortunate reminders that people can quickly become trapped in detention while their rights and liberties crumble. These individuals, and countless others, have become collateral damage in a mass lock up system that deprives people of their fundamental right to due process and subjects them to horrific conditions that often result in the rape and sexual abuse of women, and even death.

These abuses — whether to LGBT, mentally ill, female, or otherwise vulnerable detainees –take place on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch. But they are not the responsibility of a few rogue agents; rather, they are the inevitable result of a broken system that detains thousands of individuals who should not be locked up in the first place.

Immigrants in detention are invisible to the public; they are forgotten members of our society. In spite of this, detention facilities cycle through hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, tearing many away from their families. These people are stuck trying to fight their way back to their communities, and usually without any legal resources.

Aside from the fact that our detention system is inhumane, dangerous, and unnecessary, it is also fiscally irresponsible. In this time of economic struggle, it is imperative to take a critical look at places where our country can save money. The immigration detention system costs taxpayers $166 per day, per detainee (that’s $60,590/year). Why are we spending such a jaw dropping amount of money on people who do not pose a threat to society? What are our priorities as a nation? Why should so many resources go to detaining these people at all?

The stories that we have brought to light are, unfortunately, fairly common within the immigration detention system. We should all be concerned when individuals locked up on American soil are subject to such neglect and abuse. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of people who go through the immigration detention system every year. Their suffering is a harsh reminder that we need to do better.

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