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Locking Up the Huddled Masses: Innocent Refugees in Cyclone and Barbed Wire Fences

Professor Joe Vail directs the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Houston. He was formerly an immigration judge.

There is a building located just north of Beltway 8 approximately 2 miles to the east of the Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport. The building is owned by a private corporation called the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Within that building roughly eight hundred men and women are detained by the Department of Homeland Security. At any time there are approximately six hundred males and two hundred females detained at the facility. They are all immigrants seeking to remain in the United States. Some of these individuals have criminal records and have been transferred to the CCA facility for removal from the United States. Most of them however have no criminal records, and many are asylum seekers from countries racked by civil strife or economic deprivation.

The Houston detention facility was recently expanded to house an ever increasing number of individuals detained by DHS. There are cyclone and barbed wire fences on the outside. The inside is clean and cold. The detainees wear prison dress, cotton prison uniforms. They are monitored by a system of cameras which are viewed from a control room near the entrance to the facility. They are closed in by centrally controlled iron bar doors.

Corrections Corporation of America is a private corporation with its main office located in Tennessee. CCA contracts with the federal government to house and detain immigrants throughout the country. It is a booming business. Since the 1980’s the government has prioritized the imprisonment of immigrants alleged to be present in the United States unlawfully. Changes in policy, as well as the law, have resulted in tens of thousands of immigrants detained at governmental and private facilities. The cost of detention of an individual at a private facility runs anywhere from $45 to $70 per person per night. Some detention facilities are located in remote locales making it difficult to obtain legal representation. Detention facilities in Oakdale Louisiana, Eloy and Florence, Arizona hold thousands of immigrants.

The reason for the explosion in the number of immigrant detainees is partly the change in the laws over the past 20 years. The major amendment took place in 1996. Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) which mandated detention for certain classes of individuals. These include most individuals with criminal convictions including lawful permanent residents, i.e. “green card” holders. Detention is mandated regardless of community, property, and U.S. citizen family ties. In addition Congress through IIRIRA mandated that individuals attempting to enter the United States, even those seeking asylum because of persecution in their native land, be detained if the immigration officer at the port of entry has questions regarding the person’s visa or entry documentation. These are called “arriving aliens”. Criminal aliens and arriving aliens are subject to mandatory detention. They can not seek relief from custody from a judge if the Department of Homeland Security decides to detain them.

The detention of immigrants comes at a high price not just to the alien but to the government. The economic cost each year runs to the tens of millions. In addition the U.S. pays a political price in the eyes of the world of those seeking refuge within our shores. “Give me your tired and poor” rings hollow if they are detained upon setting foot on our shores. To the immigrants the price is much higher. Separation from spouse and children who are often lawful permanent residents or citizens is just one of the consequences. Loss of jobs; inability to support families; and the anguish of detention lasting months are just a few of the costs to the immigrants and asylum seekers who are detained.

For decades the general policy of the former INS was to detain only those individuals who were considered a threat to the community or a risk to abscond. This is no longer the case. Individuals who pose no threat to themselves or the larger community and who have good reasons not to abscond (families, homes, jobs, possible immigration relief) are detained. While it is true that there are individuals rightfully detained for serious drug convictions or violent crimes at immigration detention facilities across the country the truth remains that the majority are detained for reason unrelated to criminal activity.

During the past year the immigration clinic at the University of Houston Law Center has represented several young men from Africa seeking asylum based on past persecution, and sometimes torture, in their native lands. Sam (not his true name) was a young man of 19. He was from Eritrea. He spent many years in neighboring Ethiopia where he was actually born. However the Ethiopian authorities arrested and tortured him, and then expelled him from the country to neighboring Eritrea. Upon arrival in Eritrea he was arrested again. He was held in custody for several months. During this period of time he was tortured continuously based on the Eritrean government’s belief that he was a political opponent. His father had disappeared and was believed to have been killed for political reasons. After spending several months detained at a prison there, Sam managed to escape. He made it to Djibouti and later managed to secretly enter a cargo vessel at a port on the eastern coast of African. The ship ultimately landed at the Houston ship channel and Sam was taken into custody by the immigration authorities. He spent the next 14 months detained with no possibility of release. Despite the fact that Sam had a strong claim to asylum and was no threat to any individual in this country the Department of Homeland Security saw fit to keep him detained without any bond during that period. Under the changes wrought by the 1996 legislation no immigration judge could overturn that decision by the DHS. Ultimately however he presented his claim for asylum before the court and won. The judge granted his application and Sam is now residing and working in the Houston area legally.

There are thousands of individuals being detained by the Department of Homeland Security across the country like Sam who are not criminals and not threats to anyone. However despite the cost and unfairness of detaining non-violent asylum seekers it appears that the government’s policy will be to increase the detention of immigrants throughout the country. The recent congressional hearings in both the Senate and House resulted in proposals for thousands of more “beds” for immigrants. The bills put forth so far make no distinction between individuals who may be threats to the country or risks to abscond and those who pose no such risks. This “detain them all” policy if enacted will cost the citizens of the United States not only financially but morally.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 7, November-December 2006.