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Expanded Immigration Detention: Locking Up Those Yearning to Breathe Free

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
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October 28, 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.

Imagine coming to the United States fleeing persecution, applying for asylum and being immediately locked up. Your introduction to dreamed-about American freedoms takes place in an immigration detention facility with little chance of ever coming before an immigration judge to determine if your detention is even necessary.

That’s what happened to Lobsang Norbu, a Buddhist monk from Tibet, who came to the United States after fleeing China where he was persecuted for his religious beliefs and political expression. While in China, Norbu was arrested, incarcerated and tortured.

After arriving in New York, Norbu was locked up in an immigration detention center while he waited for a decision on his asylum claim. Despite posing no flight risk or danger to society, he was detained for 10 months without a bond hearing to determine if his detention was necessary — all at a cost of between $37,000 and $50,000. Norbu was later granted asylum and currently lives in a Tibetan group home on Long Island, New York where he works at a restaurant.

The welcome Norbu received is not consistent with American values. And if Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has his way, Norbu’s story will be frequently replicated under a massive expansion of the immigration detention system. Rep. Smith introduced an immigration detention bill earlier this year that would extend mandatory, prolonged, and indefinite detention of immigrants and strip them of their fundamental right to a fair and individualized bond hearing.

Smith argues the measure is necessary to prevent the release of “dangerous criminal immigrants” into American communities. But at the core, Smith’s measure has little to do with keeping “dangerous criminals” off the street, but is rather another attempt to misuse the immigration detention system to punish immigrants, even when they have never committed a crime and are applying to remain in the United States.

Smith’s bill has far-reaching effects that will subject longtime, lawful permanent residents (green card holders), refugees and asylum-seekers, torture survivors, crime victims, workers with U.S. citizen kids and many other immigrants without criminal records to prolonged detention, without a bond hearing, while they wait for final resolution of their cases. This process often takes years and years. Even harmless immigrants who win their cases before an immigration judge are subject to detention while the government appeals.

The legislation would also countermand a Supreme Court decision by authorizing indefinite detention, potentially for life, of those who have been ordered removed but cannot be deported because they are stateless or the U.S. does not have a repatriation agreement with their home country. As with all components of Rep. Smith’s bill, the indefinite detention provision would disproportionately affect Latino immigrant communities.

If Rep. Smith’s bill becomes law, productive members of our communities will be incarcerated with no opportunity to challenge their detention. And it will come at great cost to taxpayers, who already pay from $44,500 to $60,500 per detainee per year ($2 billion annually) for overcrowded detention centers to lock up those like Lobsang Norbu who pose no flight risk or danger to society.

Rep. Lamar Smith’s immigration detention bill is currently awaiting consideration before the House. Not only is this measure bad policy, but it also violates the U.S. Constitution by depriving individuals of their liberty without due process. This costly and un-American bill should never become law. Tell Congress indefinite detention is un-American.

The Immigrants’ Rights Project receives hundreds of letters each month from individuals inside immigration detention who have been locked up for years, fighting their cases to remain in the United States. Many of them are refugees, lawful permanent residents with US citizen family members, and others who pose no threat to the community.

You can read some of their letters here.

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