Veronica Noriega is the wife of Ramon Mendoza, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that broke out last March at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Wash. This week Veronica has been fasting to draw our attention to the horror of administrative detention of immigrants.
Thousands of undocumented migrants are detained indefinitely and without a right to representation at privately run jails in the U.S. Veronica’s husband, Ramon, is one of them detained in Tacoma. Crossing the border without papers is a civil, not a criminal, offense. Detention of migrants does not serve the public interest at all, and what is more, it drains our taxpayer dollars in favor of a private corporation that sneaked a mandate to fill their jail beds into an appropriations bill in 2009. Administrative detention of migrants is an institutionalized form of profiting from someone’s vulnerability.
Migrant detention is complex and hard to understand. But there is a reason for that — the more complex and bewildering the issue is, the easier is for us to ignore, and for private corporations, like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, to make money off of undocumented migrants. This is why, in support of Veronica, Ramon, and thousands of families, I’ll do my best to break down why and how migrant detention works. My hope is that by the end of this post you will be outraged enough to want to do something to end migrant detention.
• The first aspect of migrant detention is that it is administrative. That means that undocumented migrants and legal permanent residents who have lost their status are detained for administrative convenience alone. They are detained while they wait for a hearing or outcome to their case. This can take anything from two months to four years, waiting for government officials to do their job.
• Crossing the border is a civil, not a criminal offense. It is akin to a speeding ticket. Does anyone go to jail for a speeding ticket? No. Now, because it is not a criminal offense, detainees are not protected by the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.
• Detainees do not have a right to representation. That means that the few who can afford a lawyer or are lucky enough to have pro-bono agencies help them get good representation. The rest are left on their own to fill out their own asylum claims…in English. Have you ever seen an immigration form? Go check it out. Now imagine it is written in Russian and that your life depends on it.
All of this can be seen as government incompetency. Innocent stuff. But behold: now is where it gets truly evil.
• Migrant detention centers are privately run. The main contractor of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is GEO Group. GEO runs 58 detention facilities in the U.S. They also have a presence in the U.K., Australia and South Africa. GEO was started by a former FBI guy in partnership with three other former CIA agents. They sold their company but reacquired it in 2002, when the anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. was at its highest. Ever since, the number of detainees skyrocketed. GEO gets around $160 per day, per detainee, from the federal government. There are 1,500 beds in the NWDC alone. GEO reported over $1.5 billion in revenue in 2013, 16% of which came from their contract with ICE. So you see how there is no motivation to let people out of detention. This is a profitable business and many, including the Gates Foundation, invest in GEO stock.
• This is good business for GEO, but super expensive for the federal government, especially because alternatives to detention cost merely 7 cents per day. Furthermore, the thousands of detainees are moms and dads and grandfathers and grandmothers who are gainfully employed. Not having a work permit does not prevent you from starting thriving businesses. So when you detain one of these parents, you must factor in the burden that the Department of Social and Health Services now has to support the U.S. citizen children who are now on food stamps because ICE detained their gainfully employed parents so GEO can make money. Talk about wasteful spending. So why and how is this legal?
• Migrant detention is legally supported by Congress under “the bed mandate,” which stipulates that the Department of Homeland Security “shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2014.” There is wide agreement within government agencies that the mandate is arbitrary; it does not follow actual detention needs and such incarceration is far too excessive. This mandate was introduced into the 2009 DHS appropriations bill by the late Senator Robert Byrd without public comment. (He was the chair of appropriations at the time and a former member of the KKK.) The bed quota has increased each year since it was first approved. Last year, Congressmen Ted Deutch and Bill Foster introduced an amendment to repeal the bed mandate, but it failed to pass despite of wide support in the House.
Under the bed mandate, ICE is obliged to incarcerate migrants who do not pose a threat to public safety. As a consequence, families are torn apart. Parents, pregnant women and children are incarcerated indefinitely in privately run prisons that put a price tag on immigrants’ lives.
• GEO has lobbied aggressively to maintain its power within Congress. In fact, they make generous contributions to the campaigns of Democrats and Republicans alike. Byrd himself was a beneficiary, unsurprisingly, and now you make sense of why Marco Rubio is so into “protecting our borders.”
• The conditions at these detention centers are below universal human standards. GEO has incurred human rights violations within their facilities. These include, but are not limited to, sexual abuse; denial of medical care, often leading to detainees’ deaths; administrative detention of pregnant women, which is specifically against the law in the U.S.; lack of information for family members regarding the location of detainees; unlawful retaliation, such as solitary confinement as a punishment for detainees’ reasonable requests for standard conditions; and so on.
As a response to the demands of the hunger strikers at the NWDC, Rep. Adam Smith introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act (H.R.4620), which addresses the concerns of the detainees and eliminates the bed quota: "The number of detention beds maintained shall be determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security and shall be based solely on detention needs.”
Eliminating the bed mandate and expanding alternatives to detention remain crucial aspects of any humane immigration reform that wants to protect vulnerable immigrants from becoming an object for profit. To this end, the role of community members is crucial. Calling our representatives demanding an end to the bed quota, and a better use of taxpayer dollars through the use of alternatives to detention, will have a deep impact in protecting men and women like Ramón and their families.