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Dignity in Migration, Not Detention

May 23, 2022

Image credit: Anita White, Immigration Court Observation Project 

Given the existence of over 200 immigration prisons across the United States, including long-term centers here in Minnesota, the border is not a fixed location. Immigrant detention is a local issue everywhere. And, despite how immigrants strengthen Minnesota, the government continues to target immigrants and harm local communities through the practice of immigrant detention.

Local jails that contract with ICE receive millions in tax dollars for detaining migrants in beds they may or may not fill. Too often, local governments treat these dollars like general revenue, spending money on unrelated infrastructure rather than on providing language services, healthcare, outdoor recreation facilities, or even basic clothing and toiletries, to the people ICE places in their care and custody.

Beyond origins rooted in racism, the criminal injustice system mirrors, and feeds into, the immigration system. Virtually none of the people who call our office from jail in search of immigration legal help are white. Folks facing deportation from behind bars are overwhelmingly Black, Southeast Asian, Indigenous, or other BIPOC people. This is not an accident. Policing and incarceration systems intersect with and impact deportations, amplifying racial bias in immigration enforcement - especially anti-Black racism. And racism within the criminal legal system increases BIPOC immigrants' risk of encounters with ICE.

Some folks who call us from detention have been part of our community for 10, 20, 30 years or more. Others have arrived more recently to reunite with family or seek asylum from persecution in their country, sometimes having arrived as child refugees from U.S.-stoked wars abroad. But all experience isolation, including separation from family and community, while detailed. Family separation is pervasive throughout the U.S. immigration system, as anytime someone is deported or detained a community is disrupted. While in immigration custody, people are cut off from the outside world.

Access to legal help is extremely hard to come by, let alone access to one's personal support network. Phone minutes cost an exorbitant rate, another piece of how the prison industrial complex profits off of immigrants' incarceration. People may be transferred to prisons hundreds of miles or more away from their loved ones, making in-person visitation almost impossible. (Federal immigration authorities have long used transfer to remote locations to isolate people and facilitate deportation. Read the 1989 report by our factfinding team on the Oakdale Detention Center.) Covid visitation restrictions further limit people's contact with the outside world for those who have the means to travel to the detention center during visitation hours. Then, if someone loses their immigration case, they face potentially permanent family separation on account of deportation.

In addition to the harm caused by family separation, people's health deteriorates rapidly while detained. The air, food, and water quality in prisons is poor. Access to sunlight and freedom of movement is limited, even more so in the pandemic. Of the three jails in Minnesota that currently detain noncitizens during their immigration proceedings - often for months or even years - only one has an outdoor recreation area, and it is small. Detained people are not normally given coats or sweatshirts to go outside (sweatshirts are available for purchase in the commissary), further limiting access. Migrants sometimes go years without ever seeing the sun, let alone birds or flowers. Inside, access to community with fellow detainees is slim, further compounded by potential language barriers.

Medical concerns are often ignored, if even heard in the first place. The news of forced hysterectomies in a detention center Georgia in 2020 is just one example of how medical abuse and neglect is intentionally directed towards noncitizens in ICE detention. Medical neglect or abuse isn't the outlier, it is the norm. And while detained immigrants in Minnesota thankfully have not reported this particular abuse, The Advocates and our partners have documented serious problems. Pervasive problems with medical care in Minnesota's jails led to the Minnesota legislature's passage last year of the Hardel Sherrell Act. The law, named after a 27-year-old Black man who died in the Beltrami County jail in 2018, strengthens oversight over Minnesota jails. Rulemaking is expected later this year.

Immigrant detention has profound negative mental health impacts which some advocates have characterized as psychological torture. In addition to limited contact with one's community, access to information on the status of one's immigration case is also limited while imprisoned by ICE, further feeding into the feeling of limbo. People are removed from their cells for deportation at any time of the day or night, leaving a pervasive feeling of instability and danger because deportation can be a death sentence for asylum seekers, refugees, and other noncitizens.

As service providers, we hear from clients how the mental health services in detention fail them. Often, the only "treatment" suicidal people receive is to be put in solitary confinement, a practice known to heighten risk of completing suicide. Solitary confinement is also used arbitrarily, sometimes as punishment and sometimes just so the jail can detain more people. And while the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, state that solitary confinement should be used only as a last resort, is prohibited in excess of 15 days, and should never be used for people with a mental or physical disability, people too often face prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement in Minnesota jails.

All in all, the immigrant detention system treats people as though they are disposable commodities. People disappeared by ICE (whether detained, deported, or both) in Minnesota often have longstanding ties with the community, face persecution if deported, or both. Our community is harmed with every instance of detention. At the end of the day, the immigrant detention system is largely arbitrary in terms of who is detained and who isn't, routinely violating international standards.

This doesn't need to be the way the United States responds to migration. The Global Compact for Migration calls on governments to promote the dignity and well-being of migrants and to detain people only as a last resort. Divesting from enforcement and investing in community-based supports provides a real roadmap to moving beyond the detention-first paradigm.

Detention causes irreparable harms, and the system can and should be changed.

Julia Valero is a Paralegal & Intake Coordinator with The Advocates for Human Rights' Refugee & Immigrant Program, where she brings a grounding in an abolitionist, holistic, and client-centered approach to immigration legal advocacy.

John Bruning is a Staff Attorney with The Advocates' Refugee & Immigrant Program. His work focuses on advocating for detained noncitizens in immigration court, before the immigration agencies, and in U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeals.