On Tuesday, July 14, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on a television program called “Good Life in Germany” in which she spoke to local teenagers. Among the audience was 13-year old Reem, a Palestinian refugee who fled their camp in Lebanon four years ago.
In a shaky voice of fluent German, young Reem said, “I have goals like everyone else…I want to go to university.” But, she explained, she and her family are facing deportation. “It’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself,” she said, “I want to study like them.”
Chancellor Merkel responded with the standard western fear of immigrants. She said if Germany allows her to stay, there would be thousands of Palestinian refugees, then thousands from “Africa” [that singular large country] who will flood into Germany. “We can’t cope with that,” she said. Young Reem crumbled into sobs and the footage of her interaction with Chancellor Merkel went viral.
Headlines and political analyses across Europe and the US spoke of Merkel’s dry response to a brave young girl, desperate for an education, for a stable life, for something other than lingering fear and uncertainty to frame her life. I read at least 15 opinion pieces on the subject and most of them couched this incident in the much discussed “immigration crisis” across Western Europe. Leftist pundits decried the chancellor as heartless, insisting on Europe’s humanitarian responsibility toward the wretched of the earth. Right leaning pundits reflected Merkel’s sentiments that Europe has enough to worry about and should not be expected to shoulder the world’s problems. Others were simply pragmatic, echoing the words of Eva Lohse, president of the German association of Cities, who cautioned, “we’re reaching the limits of our capacity.”
All these analyses missed the most important point.
Not one of them touched on the fact that Reem is a refugee directly and indirectly because of German actions. Reem, and “thousands upon thousands of Palestinian refugees,” as Merkel put it, are stateless precisely because Germany, along with other western nations, continue to support zionist colonialism that expelled, and continues to expel, native Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.
Reem would not need German “charity” were Germany to insist that the massive military and financial aid it gives to Israel were contingent upon Israel’s adherence to basic tenets of morality and international law that explicitly provide for Reem’s right to live in her native homeland. Reem might not be lost in the world were Germany to make the many lucrative European economic and trade incentives with Israel subject to the dismantling of zionist Apartheid that deems Reem a lesser human, unworthy of her own heritage, home and history.
More than the enormous material support is the favor that Germany provides for Israel to continue its entrenchment of the structural and institutional racism that offers state privilege and entitlement to citizens in accordance with their religion. It because of the political cover that Germany offers Israel to destroy Palestinian life, society and culture with impunity that Reem remains a refugee. Last summer, for example, after Israel slaughtered Palestinians in Gaza from land, air, and sea, the UN Human Rights Council urged the UN to “urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations [of international law] in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014.” Despite the horrors that Palestinians endured in the course of 51 days, Germany could not muster the most minimal affirmation of Palestinian humanity to vote in favor of such an inquiry.
Watching the footage, those of us with a sense of history seethe at such a spectacle of western paternalism. Merkel’s response to Reem was a perfect display of the breathtaking willful denial of western governments, which are, indeed, creators of refugees. The truth is that our part of the world lay in ruin, fear, and devastation largely because of imperialist western “operations” in pursuit of a hegemony that holds our lives in contempt, utter disregard and disrespect. From Iraq to Palestine to Libya, Germany has played a terrible and pivotal role in the evisceration of us. Together with her western allies, they have made beggars of our mothers, doctors and teachers, and produced generations of traumatized, illiterates into what were once high functioning populations. They destroyed our societies down to their foundations, vanquishing the social mechanisms that marginalize extreme elements, such that into the chaos and gaping misery of our lives now runs amuck a powerful organization of ghoulish fanatics.
So, to the leftist, the right wing, and the pragmatic pundits, I say spare us, please, the self-serving blather about whether you should or should not “help” others. It would be enough to cease the harm caused and perpetuated by the west. At a minimum, try to inject a kernel of honest self-reproach into your discourse on immigration. Examine your role in creating the crises around the world that bring desperate human beings to your shores. Ask why is Reem a refugee, perhaps third or fourth generation, and what is Germany’s role in the boundless tragedy that continues to befall Palestine.
Susan Abulhawa is a bestselling novelist and essayist. Her new novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, was released this year and simultaneously published in multiple languages, including German.
Roger’s note: our heartless greed-oriented and violent capitalist world the oppression of women and children is an everyday occurrence. I takes many forms, mostly related to poverty one way or another. Here we see mindless and shameless government bureaucracy at work to directly harm women and children who are already victims or corporate inspired government policies with respect to Central America.
‘We want freedom for our children. It’s not right to continue to detain us.’
Protesters demand closure of the Karnes, Texas immigrant detention center in January 2015. (Photo: WeAreUltraViolet/flickr/cc)
About 40 women being held at the privately-run Karnes Family Detention Center in southern Texas launched a hunger strike this week to demand their release and the release of their families, vowing on Tuesday not to eat, work, or use the services at the facility until they are freed.
Nearly 80 women being held at the center, many of whom are said to be asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, signed a letter stating that they have all been refused bond despite having established a credible fear of violence if they are sent back to Central America—a key factor in the U.S. government’s process for screening detained immigrants to allow them amnesty.
“We deserve to be treated with some dignity and that our rights, to the immigration process, are respected,” the letter reads. “You should know that this is just the beginning and we will not stop [the hunger strike] until we achieve our goals. This strike will continue until each of us is freed.”
The letter also states that many of the children held in the camp are losing weight and that their “health is deteriorating.” Many of the families have been detained for as long as 10 months.
One woman, 26-year old Honduran mother Kenia Galeano, decried the center’s treatment of the families in a phone interview with McClatchy on Tuesday. “We’re many mothers, not just me,” she said. “We want freedom for our children. It’s not right to continue to detain us.”
Galeano, who shares a room with three other mothers and their children, also said that her two-year-old son has become depressed and lost weight due to the culturally inappropriate food.
According to the letter, some of the mothers were also left behind in the detention center, while their children were granted bond. “We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents,” the letter reads. “We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country.”
“This strike will continue until each of us is freed.”
Karnes, which is run by the private corrections company GEO Group, has come under fire in the past for its treatment of the children who are detained there, with reports of weight loss and forced separation from their mothers, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department has denied those allegations.
ICE also claimed it was unaware of any residents actually participating in the strike, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the agency “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes, are permitted to do so.”
It also said it was investigating claims that members of a nonprofit advocacy group encouraged the women to take part in the hunger strike—a charge which activists deny.
Cristina Parker, immigration programs director at the Texas-based immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, told the Guardian on Tuesday, “This is something that has been rippling through the centre almost since it opened. I don’t believe at all that they were coached into doing this.”
According to Parker, the center is now blocking access to internet and telephone facilities for all of its detainees, regardless of whether they are participating in the hunger strike.
At least two women who signed the letter were also placed into isolation with their children in Karnes’s clinic, leading about half of those who initially pledged to take part in the hunger strike to drop out, according to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Johana De Leon, a legal assistant with the nonprofit, told McClatchy that other mothers were warned they could lose custody of their children if they participated.
In addition to its mistreatment of children, Karnes has also been accused of sexual misconduct by guards and denial of critical medical care for detainees, among other charges. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general reported in February that there was no evidence to support the allegations.
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Roger’s note: Another is my series: your American tax dollars at work in Latin America … to aid and abet murder.
In just the first two months of 2015, we have been horrified, though not surprised, to learn of the continued repression by SOA/WHINSEC graduates against their own people. As the US continues to secure economic and political interests by utilizing military solutions to social and political problems, SOA/WHINSEC graduates continue to make headlines in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Peru and Chile, underscoring the importance of continuing the struggle to close the SOA/WHINSEC. While some graduates have yet to be held accountable due to the high levels of impunity in their country or in the US, they are all directly responsible for committing grave human rights violations, which include murder, torture and genocide.
As we continue to highlight these atrocities, we invite you to join us in Washington, DC for our Spring Days of Action this April 22-25, Growing Stronger Together: Resisting the “War on Drugs” across the America.
Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nuñez – Chile
In 2013, a Chilean Supreme Court formally requested the extradition of former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos from the United States to Chile to stand trial for the 1973 torture and murder of folk singer Víctor Jara. Barrientos moved to the US after the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990. While the US government has yet to respond to this extradition request, a trial in a Florida court was set to begin on February 23. Though the trial has been postponed, Barrientos, who currently resides in Deltona, Florida, could potentially lose his US citizenship and later extradited to Chile where he would stand trial. In the US, Barrientos has been accused of immigration fraud, as he concealed his participation in human rights atrocities during the dictatorship in Chile. Joan Jara, widow of Víctor Jara, filed the case against Barrientos and has been seeking truth and justice for over 40 years.
General José Efraín Ríos Montt – Guatemala
On January 5, the retrial against SOA grad and former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was set to resume following the annullment of the historic May 10, 2013 sentence condemning Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide against 1,771 Ixil Mayans. He is the first former head of state to be put on trial for genocide. On the morning of the retrial, the defense motioned for a postponement of the trial, using Ríos Montt’s deterioating health an excuse for not being able to present himself to the courtroom. Through stalling tactics by his defense, including attempts to seek amnesty, the retrial has been postponed once again despite international criticism. Ríos Montt came to power after a coup on March 23, 1982 and remained in power until August 1983. He is 88 years old.
Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra – Honduras
In January 2015, 2011 SOA/WHINSEC graduate Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra got off scot free for his role in the murder of 15-year-old Ebed Yanes despite the judges’ finding that “it has been proven Josué Antonio Sierra and Felipe de Jesus also fired their weapons at young Ebed Jassiel, which makes them participants in his death”. Sierra was in charge of the patrol, part of a US-vetted unit in charge of the US-donated vehicle used to chase down and kill young Ebed at a military checkpoint. Conveniently, Honduras’ Public Ministry solely accused a low-ranking solidier who was not part of the US-vetted unit of murder, while accusing Sierra and Rodríguez only of abuse of authority and cover-up. Human rights organization COFADEH had previously tried to include murder charges against them but the government Special Prosecutor for Human Rights decided against it. Now, the US can conveniently report that nobody from the vetted unit, much less a WHINSEC grad, has been found guilty of murder in the case. Click here to continue reading… Col. Jovel Martínez – Honduras
Meanwhile, in the northern part of the country on the night of January 29, 18-year-old campesino leader Christian Alberto Martínez Pérez was riding his bike near the entrance to Paso Aguán Plantation, which is controlled by security guards for Dinant Corportation and soldiers from the Xatruch III Task Force, commanded by SOA graduate Jovel Martínez. Christian went missing, his bike found at the entrance to the Paso Aguán Plantation. Campesino and human rights organizations proceeded to search for him, finding his shirt on the Paso Aguán Plantation. Over 200 people combed the area for him, until finally on the third day of searching, he was found, blindfolded, barefoot, hands and feet tied up, left in a field. Once rescued, he told how a Dinant security guard approached him with a gun and together with a soldier put him in a vehicle, blindfolded him, and interrogated him about the leadership of the Gregorio Chávez campesino movement. Click here to continue reading… General Daniel Urresti Elera – Peru
Yesterday in Peru, prosecutors requested 25 years of prison for SOA gradaute, retired General Daniel Urresti Elera, related to the 1988 murder of journalist Hugo Bustíos. As head of the Intelligence Section of the Countersubversive Military High Command Battalion at the time, Urresti is accused of masterminding the ambush and murder of Bustíos. Up until last week, Urresti was in charge of Peru’s police as Minister of the Interior and also made headlines as police repression was unleashed on protests against a law that would eliminate labor benefits and rights for young workers. Twenty thousand young people took to the streets, protesting neoliberal reform.
On January 15, 2015, police unleashed tear gas and detained protesters, and violence was reported between infiltrators and police. Soon after, on January 26, Urresti publicly boasted to the media that the young people would not be able to reach Congress and sent ten thousand police to block them. Nevertheless, the Peruvian youth and social movements prevailed and Congress was forced to repeal the law. Just last week, Urresti apologized for the February 11, 2015 death of 25-year-old Ever Pérez Huaman during protests against a petroleum company in Pichanaki, Peru. Amidst mounting criticism, Urresti admitted political responsibility for the use of firearms by police during the protest, and stepped down as Minister of the Interior.
Roger’s note: this article ran, in a sense (at least to my mind), side by side with this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/sunday-review/surviving-the-nazis-only-to-be-jailed-by-america.html?_r=0) in the same online edition of the New York Times the other day. An uncanny juxtaposition. The heartless racism — buttressed by capitalism’s inherent inequality — that infects America, which has its roots in the First Nations genocide and the African slave trade, is not a matter of the past, as we see here. You can talk about practical politics all you want, but sending children back “home” to be violated and tortured constitutes a moral and ethical crime of the highest nature. President Obama and his heartless Homeland Security (sic) bureaucrats have deported more refugee claimants than his immediate predecessors.
The back story to all this, of course, is that the corruption and violence in the Mexican and Central American nations from which masses are trying to escape to the United States is a direct result of the US government’s policies.
Christina Brown pulled into the refugee camp after an eight-hour drive across the desert. It was late July of last year, and Brown was a 30-year-old immigration lawyer. She had spent a few years after college working on political campaigns, but her law degree was barely a year old, and she had only two clients in her private practice in Denver. When other lawyers told her that the federal government was opening a massive detention center for immigrants in southeastern New Mexico, where hundreds of women and children would be housed in metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire, Brown decided to volunteer legal services to the detainees. She wasn’t sure exactly what rights they might have, but she wanted to make sure they got them. She packed enough clothes to last a week, stopped by Target to pick up coloring books and toys and started driving south.
As she pulled into the dusty town of Artesia, she realized that she still had no idea what to expect. The new detention center was just north of town, behind a guard station in a sprawling complex with restricted access. Two other volunteers had been in town for about a week and had permission from federal officials to access the compound the following day.Brown spent the night at a motel, then drove to the detention camp in the morning. She stood in the wind-swept parking lot with the other lawyers, overlooking the barren plains of the eastern plateau. After a few minutes, a transport van emerged from the facility to pick them up. It swung to a stop in the parking lot, and the attorneys filed on. They sat on the cold metal benches and stared through the caged windows as the bus rolled back into the compound and across the bleak brown landscape. It came to a stop by a small trailer, and the lawyers shuffled out.
As they opened the door to the trailer, Brown felt a blast of cold air. The front room was empty except for two small desks arranged near the center. A door in the back opened to reveal dozens of young women and children huddled together. Many were gaunt and malnourished, with dark circles under their eyes. “The kids were really sick,” Brown told me later. “A lot of the moms were holding them in their arms, even the older kids — holding them like babies, and they’re screaming and crying, and some of them are lying there listlessly.”
Brown took a seat at a desk, and a guard brought a woman to meet her. Brown asked the woman in Spanish how she ended up in detention. The woman explained that she had to escape from her home in El Salvador when gangs targeted her family. “Her husband had just been murdered, and she and her kids found his body,” Brown recalls. “After he was murdered, the gang started coming after her and threatening to kill her.” Brown agreed to help the woman apply for political asylum in the United States, explaining that it might be possible to pay a small bond and then live with friends or relatives while she waited for an asylum hearing. When the woman returned to the back room, Brown met with another, who was fleeing gangs in Guatemala. Then she met another young woman, who fled violence in Honduras. “They were all just breaking down,” Brown said. “They were telling us that they were afraid to go home. They were crying, saying they were scared for themselves and their children. It was a constant refrain: ‘I’ll die if I go back.’ ”
As Brown emerged from the trailer that evening, she already knew it would be difficult to leave at the end of the week. The women she met were just a fraction of those inside the camp, and the government was making plans to open a second facility of nearly the same size in Karnes County, Tex., near San Antonio. “I remember thinking to myself that this was an impossible situation,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and sad and angry. I think the anger is what kept me going.”
Over the past six years, President Obama has tried to make children the centerpiece of his efforts to put a gentler face on U.S. immigration policy. Even as his administration has deported a record number of unauthorized immigrants, surpassing two million deportations last year, it has pushed for greater leniency toward undocumented children. After trying and failing to pass the Dream Act legislation, which would offer a path to permanent residency for immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, the president announced an executive action in 2012 to block their deportation. Last November, Obama added an executive order to extend those protections to their parents. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he said in a speech on Nov. 20. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” But the president’s new policies apply only to immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years; they do nothing to address the emerging crisis on the border today.
Since the economic collapse of 2008, the number of undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico has plunged, while a surge of violence in Central America has brought a wave of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. According to recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of refugees fleeing Central America has doubled in the past year alone — with more than 61,000 “family units” crossing the U.S. border, as well as 51,000 unaccompanied children. For the first time, more people are coming to the United States from those countries than from Mexico, and they are coming not just for opportunity but for survival.
The explosion of violence in Central America is often described in the language of war, cartels, extortion and gangs, but none of these capture the chaos overwhelming the region. Four of the five highest murder rates in the world are in Central American nations. The collapse of these countries is among the greatest humanitarian disasters of our time. While criminal organizations like the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha exist as street gangs in the United States, in large parts of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador they are so powerful and pervasive that they have supplanted the government altogether. People who run afoul of these gangs — which routinely demand money on threat of death and sometimes kidnap young boys to serve as soldiers and young girls as sexual slaves — may have no recourse to the law and no better option than to flee.
The American immigration system defines a special pathway for refugees. To qualify, most applicants must present themselves to federal authorities, pass a “credible fear interview” to demonstrate a possible basis for asylum and proceed through a “merits hearing” before an immigration judge. Traditionally, those who have completed the first two stages are permitted to live with family and friends in the United States while they await their final hearing, which can be months or years later. If authorities believe an applicant may not appear for that court date, they can require a bond payment as guarantee or place the refugee in a monitoring system that may include a tracking bracelet. In the most extreme cases, a judge may deny bond and keep the refugee in a detention facility until the merits hearing.
The rules are somewhat different when children are involved. Under the terms of a 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Meese, children who enter the country without their parents must be granted a “general policy favoring release” to the custody of relatives or a foster program. When there is cause to detain a child, he or she must be housed in the least restrictive environment possible, kept away from unrelated adults and provided access to medical care, exercise and adequate education. Whether these protections apply to children traveling with their parents has been a matter of dispute. The Flores settlement refers to “all minors who are detained” by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its “agents, employees, contractors and/or successors in office.” When the I.N.S. dissolved into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, its detention program shifted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Federal judges have ruled that ICE is required to honor the Flores protections to all children in its custody.
Even so, in 2005, the administration of George W. Bush decided to deny the Flores protections to refugee children traveling with their parents. Instead of a “general policy favoring release,” the administration began to incarcerate hundreds of those families for months at a time. To house them, officials opened the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center near Austin, Tex. Within a year, the administration faced a lawsuit over the facility’s conditions. Legal filings describe young children forced to wear prison jumpsuits, to live in dormitory housing, to use toilets exposed to public view and to sleep with the lights on, even while being denied access to appropriate schooling. In a pretrial hearing, a federal judge in Texas blasted the administration for denying these children the protections of the Flores settlement. “The court finds it inexplicable that defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family-detention program, knowing all the while that Flores is still in effect,” the judge wrote. The Bush administration settled the suit with a promise to improve the conditions at Hutto but continued to deny that children in the family detention were entitled to the Flores protections.
In 2009, the Obama administration reversed course, abolishing family detention at Hutto and leaving only a small facility in Pennsylvania to house refugee families in exceptional circumstances. For all other refugee families, the administration returned to a policy of release to await trial. Studies have shown that nearly all detainees who are released from custody with some form of monitoring will appear for their court date. But when the number of refugees from Central America spiked last summer, the administration abruptly announced plans to resume family detention.
From the beginning, officials were clear that the purpose of the new facility in Artesia was not so much to review asylum petitions as to process deportation orders. “We have already added resources to expedite the removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come from these three countries without children,” the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, told a Senate committee in July. “Then there are adults who brought their children with them. Again, our message to this group is simple: We will send you back.” Elected officials in Artesia say that Johnson made a similar pledge during a visit to the detention camp in July. “He said, ‘As soon as we get them, we’ll ship them back,’ ” a city councilor from Artesia named Jose Luis Aguilar recalled. The mayor of the city, Phillip Burch, added, “His comment to us was that this would be a ‘rapid deportation process.’ Those were his exact words.”
During the first five weeks that the Artesia facility was open, officials deported more than 200 refugees to Central America. But as word of the detention camp began to spread, volunteers like Christina Brown trickled into town. Their goal was to stop the deportations, schedule asylum hearings for the detainees and, whenever possible, release the women and children on bond. Many of the lawyers who came to Artesia were young mothers, and they saw in the detained children a resemblance to their own. By last fall, roughly 200 volunteers were rotating through town in shifts: renting rooms in local motels, working 12-hour days to interview detainees and file asylum paperwork, then staying awake into the night to consult one another. Some volunteers returned to Artesia multiple times. A few spent more than a month there. Brown never moved back to Denver. She moved into a little yellow house by the detention facility, took up office space in a local church and, with help from a nonprofit group called the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, she began to organize the volunteers pouring in.
As Brown got to know detainees in Artesia, grim patterns emerged from their stories. One was the constant threat of gangs in their lives; another was the prevalence of sexual violence. A detainee in Artesia named Sofia explained that a gang murdered her brother, shot her husband and then kidnapped and raped her 14-year-old stepdaughter. A Guatemalan woman named Kira said that she fled when a gang targeted her family over their involvement in a nonviolence movement at church; when Kira’s husband went into hiding, the gang subjected her to repeated sexual assaults and threatened to cut her unborn baby from her womb. An inmate named Marisol said she crossed the U.S. border in June after a gang in Honduras murdered the father of her 3-year-old twins, then turned its attention to her.
Less than a week after her arrival in Artesia, Brown represented the young Salvadoran mother she met on her first day. It was a preliminary hearing to see whether the woman met the basic preconditions for asylum. A frequent consideration in the refugee process is whether an applicant is being targeted as a member of a “particular social group.” Judges have interpreted the phrase to include a refugee’s victimhood on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. At the hearing, Brown planned to invoke the pervasiveness of gang violence and sexual assault, but she says the immigration judge refused to let her speak.
“I wasn’t allowed to play any role,” Brown said. Speaking to the judge, her client described her husband’s murder and the threats she faced from gangs. “She testified very well,” Brown said. But when the judge asked whether she felt targeted as a member of a “social group,” the woman said no. “Because that is a legal term of art,” Brown said. “She had no idea what the heck it means.” Brown tried to interject, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. He denied the woman’s request for an asylum hearing and slated her for deportation. Afterward, Brown said, “I went behind one of the cubicles, and I started sobbing uncontrollably.”
Detainees who passed their initial hearings often found themselves stranded in Artesia without bond. Lawyers for Homeland Security have adopted a policy they call “no bond or high bond” for the women and children in detention. In court filings, they insist that prolonged detention is necessary to “further screen the detainees and have a better chance of identifying any that present threats to our public safety and national security.” Allowing these young mothers and children to be free on bond, they claim, “would have indirect yet significant adverse national-security consequences.”
As the months ticked by in Artesia, many detainees began to wonder if they would ever be free again. “I arrived on July 5 and turned myself in at 2 a.m.,” a 28-year-old mother of two named Ana recalled. In Honduras, Ana ran a small business selling trinkets and served on the P.T.A. of her daughter’s school. “I lived well,” she said — until the gangs began to pound on her door, demanding extortion payments. Within days, they had escalated their threats, approaching Ana brazenly on the street. “One day, coming home from my daughter’s school, they walked up to me and put a gun to my head,” she said. “They told me that if I didn’t give them the money in less than 24 hours, they would kill me.” Ana had already seen friends raped and murdered by the gang, so she packed her belongings that night and began the 1,800-mile journey to the U.S. border with her 7-year-old daughter. Four weeks later, in McAllen, Tex., they surrendered as refugees.
Ana and her daughter entered Artesia in mid-July. In October they were still there. Ana’s daughter was sick and losing weight rapidly under the strain of incarceration. Their lawyer, a leader in Chicago’s Mormon Church named Rebecca van Uitert, said that Ana’s daughter became so weak and emaciated that doctors threatened drastic measures. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to force her to eat, and if you don’t, we’re going to put a PICC line in her and force-feed her,’ ” van Uitert said. Ana said that when her daughter heard the doctor say this, “She started to cry and cry.”
In October, as van Uitert presented Ana’s case to an immigration judge, the lawyer broke down in the courtroom. “I’m starting to make these arguments before the judge, and I just couldn’t,” she said. “I sounded like a barking seal, just sucking and gasping, and because I was crying, a lot of people started crying. The attorney next to me was crying, Ana was crying, her little girl started crying. I looked over at the bailiff, who actually ended up being my friend when I went back another time. He had tears in his eyes.” The judge granted Ana’s release on bond; she is currently waiting for an asylum hearing in North Carolina.
Many of the volunteers in Artesia tell similar stories about the misery of life in the facility. “I thought I was pretty tough,” said Allegra Love, who spent the previous summer working on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. “I mean, I had seen kids in all manner of suffering, but this was a really different thing. It’s a jail, and the women and children are being led around by guards. There’s this look that the kids have in their eyes. This lackadaisical look. They’re just sitting there, staring off, and they’re wasting away. That was what shocked me most.”
The detainees reported sleeping eight to a room, in violation of the Flores settlement, with little exercise or stimulation for the children. Many were under the age of 6 and had been raised on a diet of tortillas, rice and chicken bits. In Artesia, the institutional cafeteria foods were as unfamiliar as the penal atmosphere, and to their parents’ horror, many of the children refused to eat. “Gaunt kids, moms crying, they’re losing hair, up all night,” an attorney named Maria Andrade recalled. Another, Lisa Johnson-Firth, said: “I saw children who were malnourished and were not adapting. One 7-year-old just lay in his mother’s arms while she bottle-fed him.” Mary O’Leary, who made three trips to Artesia last fall, said: “I was trying to talk to one client about her case, and just a few feet away at another table there was this lady with a toddler between 2 and 4 years old, just lying limp. This was a sick kid, and just with this horrible racking cough.”
In early August, a paralegal from Oregon named Vanessa Sischo arrived at the camp. Raised in a small town near Mount Hood, Sischo did not realize until high school that her parents brought her into the United States from Mexico as an infant without documentation. She gained protection from deportation under the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. When Sischo learned that children arriving from Central America were being incarcerated in Artesia, she volunteered immediately. She arrived a week after Christina Brown, and like Brown, she stayed. After about a month, AILA and another nonprofit, the American Immigration Council, hired Brown as the pro bono project’s lead attorney. Brown recommended Sischo for the job of project coordinator. The two women began rooming together in the small yellow house near Main Street.
Brown and Sischo make an unlikely pair. Brown, who has a sturdy build and dark brown hair, has an inborn skepticism and a piercing wit. Sischo is six years younger and preternaturally easygoing. Until she discovered her own immigration background, she had little interest in political affairs and spent much of her time in Oregon as a competitive snowboarder. For both, Artesia was a jarring shift from life at home. As they sat together one evening in December, they described a typical week. “The new volunteers come in on Sunday, go through orientation, and by Wednesday night, everyone is crying,” Brown said. “A lot of the attorneys come in and say: ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve seen all of this before. I’ll be fine.’ ”
“I remember the first time I went in,” Sischo said. “I just stopped, and all I could hear was a symphony of coughing and sneezing and crying and wailing.”
“Kids vomiting all over the place,” Brown said.
“There was a big outbreak of fevers,” Sischo said. “It sent an infant into convulsions.”
“Pneumonia, scabies, lice,” Brown said.
Officials for ICE say these accounts are exaggerated. But they declined multiple requests to visit the Artesia facility and took weeks to answer questions about its facilities. Brown, who oversaw more than 500 detainee cases as lead attorney, was also unable to gain access to the camp’s housing, dining, medical and educational facilities. “I requested three times to be taken on a tour,” she said. “I sent it through the appropriate channels. No one ever responded, to date, to my request.”
Visitors who did gain access to the facility have raised troubling questions about the ethics — and legality — of how it handled children. The Flores settlement requires the government to provide regular schooling for juveniles in detention, but the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, said that on several visits to the compound, the classrooms were always empty. “I was told that children were attending classes,” he recalled. “Did I personally witness it? No. And none of the tours that I made did I see the children actually in class.” Members of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, who toured the facility in October, say that officials also showed them the empty school. When one member asked why the building was empty, an ICE official replied that school was temporarily closed. Detainees have consistently told their lawyers that the school was never reliably open. They recall a few weeks in October when classes were in session for an hour or two per day, then several weeks of closure through November, followed by another brief period of classes in December.
In response to questions about the school, ICE officials would say only that “regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, and ended Dec. 17.” Asked whether the school was open consistently, and for how many hours, ICE officials declined to respond. The deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Esther Olavarria, who has purview over ICE, said that she was aware “there were challenges” at the Artesia school, but couldn’t say exactly when it was open or for how long. Olavarria has a distinguished record as advocate for refugees and previously served as a top immigration adviser for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. She said that she was under the impression that attorneys in Artesia were granted access to the facility, and she could not explain why Brown was not. She also believed that the meal service in Artesia was adapted to reflect the dietary norms of Central America and that medical care was adequate and available. After hearing what detainees, attorneys, faith advocates and elected officials described in Artesia, Olavarria promised to look into these issues and provide further documentation. Despite several attempts to elicit that documentation, she provided none. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said: “The regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, but was suspended shortly thereafter in order to ensure appropriate vetting of all teachers.” Officials say that school resumed on Oct. 24 and continued through Dec. 17.
Attorneys for the Obama administration have argued in court, like the Bush administration previously, that the protections guaranteed by the Flores settlement do not apply to children in family detention. “The Flores settlement comes into play with unaccompanied minors,” a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security named Karen Donoso Stevens insisted to a judge on Aug. 4. “That argument is moot here, because the juvenile is detained — is accompanied and detained — with his mother.”
Federal judges have consistently rejected this position. Just as the judge reviewing family detention in 2007 called the denial of Flores protections “inexplicable,” the judge presiding over the Aug. 4 hearing issued a ruling in September that Homeland Security officials in Artesia must honor the Flores Settlement Agreement. “The language of the F.S.A. is unambiguous,” Judge Roxanne Hladylowycz wrote. “The F.S.A. was designed to create a nationwide policy for the detention of all minors, not only those who are unaccompanied.” Olavarria said she was not aware of that ruling and would not comment on whether the Department of Homeland Security believes that the Flores ruling applies to children in family detention today.
As the pro bono project in Artesia continued into fall, its attorneys continued to win in court. By mid-November, more than 400 of the detained women and children were free on bond. Then on Nov. 20, the administration suddenly announced plans to transfer the Artesia detainees to the ICE detention camp in Karnes, Tex., where they would fall under a new immigration court district with a new slate of judges.
That announcement came at the very moment the president was delivering a live address on the new protections available to established immigrant families. In an email to notify Artesia volunteers about the transfer, an organizer for AILA named Stephen Manning wrote, “The disconnect from the compassionate-ish words of the president and his crushing policies toward these refugees is shocking.” Brown was listening to the speech in her car, while driving to Denver for a rare weekend at home, when her cellphone buzzed with the news that 20 of her clients would be transferred to Texas the next morning. Many of them were close to a bond release; in San Antonio, they might be detained for weeks or months longer. Brown pulled her car to the side of the highway and spent three hours arguing to delay the transfer. Over the next two weeks, officials moved forward with the plan.
By mid-December, most of the Artesia detainees were in Karnes, and Brown and Sischo were scrambling to pack the contents of their home and office. On the afternoon of Dec. 16, they threw their final bags into a U-Haul, its cargo area crammed with laundry baskets, suitcases, file boxes and hiking backpacks, all wedged precariously in place, then set out for the eight-hour drive across the desert to central Texas.
The next morning, a law professor named Barbara Hines was also speeding into San Antonio. Hines is a wiry woman in her 60s with a burst of black curls and an aspect of bristling intensity. In the battle over refugee detention, she is something of a seminal figure for advocates like Brown and Sischo. As co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas, Hines helped lead the 2007 lawsuit against the Hutto facility, which brought about its closure in 2009 and the abolition of widespread family detention until last summer. When the Obama administration announced plans to resume the practice in Artesia, Hines was outraged; when officials opened the second facility in Karnes, just two hours from her home in Austin, Hines began to organize a pro bono project of her own. Although she’d never met Brown or Sischo, she had been running a parallel operation for months. Now that they were in Texas, Hines was eager to meet them.
But first, she had a client to represent. Hines pulled into a parking lot behind the immigration court in downtown San Antonio and rushed inside, up a clattering elevator to the third floor and down a long hallway to a cramped courtroom. At the front, behind a vast wooden desk, sat Judge Glenn McPhaul, a tidy man with slicked hair and a pencil mustache. He presided from an elevated platform, with a clerk to his right, an interpreter to his left, and a large television monitor in the corner. On screen was the pale and grainy image of a dozen exhausted Central American women.
These were just a few of the Karnes detainees, linked by video feed to the courtroom. Another 500 women and children were in the compound with them. There was no legal distinction between their cases and those of the women in Artesia; they had simply been sent to a different facility, weeks or months earlier. Each of them, like the women in Artesia, had already been through the early stages of the asylum process — presenting herself to immigration authorities, asking for refugee status and passing the “credible-fear interview” to confirm a basis for her claim. But the odds of release in Karnes were worse. One of McPhaul’s colleagues, Judge Gary Burkholder, was averaging a 91.6 percent denial rate for the asylum claims. Some Karnes detainees had been in the facility for nearly six months and could remain there another six.
The sitting area of the courtroom was nearly empty, save for half a dozen attorneys. Many of the volunteers at Karnes are friends and former students of Hines, who has been drafting every licensed lawyer she can find. As she slid down the long bench to a seat, she nodded to some of the attorneys in the room and stopped to whisper with another. Then she spent a few minutes fidgeting with her phone until the clerk called her client’s name, and Hines sprang forward, slipping past the bar rail to a table facing the judge. On the television screen, her client, Juana, was stepping toward the camera at Karnes. She was a young woman with a narrow face and deep eyes. Her hair was pulled back to reveal high cheekbones and a somber expression.
McPhaul asked the stenographer to begin transcription, then he commenced with the ritualized exchange of detention proceedings, recording the names of the attorneys, the detainee and everyone on the bench. He noted the introduction of a series of legal documents and confirmed that Juana was still happy to be represented by Hines. There was a stream of legal jargon and a few perfunctory remarks about the status of the case, all of it in clipped judicial vernacular and a flat, indifferent tone. Then McPhaul set a date for the next hearing, at which Hines could begin to present an argument for Juana’s release on bond.
For now, Juana’s turn was over; the whole affair took less than 10 minutes, without any meaningful discussion of her case or its merits. As Hines stepped out of the courtroom, Juana was turning away from the camera to return to her children in Karnes. It was impossible to say how much of the hearing she understood, since none of the proceedings were translated into Spanish. The courtroom interpreter was there only to translate the judge’s questions and the detainees’ responses; everything else was said exclusively in English, including the outcome. For all that Juana knew, she might have been granted reprieve or confined for another six months.
Over the next two hours, the scene would repeat a dozen times. Each time McPhaul called a name, a new lawyer would step forward, taking a seat before the bench and proceeding through the verbal Kabuki. In a few cases, McPhaul offered the detainee the opportunity to post bond — usually around $3,000. But the courtroom interpreter was not allowed to convey this news to the detainee, either. If the pro bono attorney spoke Spanish fluently, there might be a few minutes at the end of the session to explain what happened. If not, the detainee would return to custody and might not discover that she had been granted bond until, or unless, someone paid it.
These, of course, were the lucky women with an attorney to represent them at all. Although the families in Artesia and Karnes have been detained in an environment that closely resembles incarceration, there is no requirement in American law to provide them with the sort of legal representation afforded to other defendants. Unlike the Artesia project, where the involvement of AILA brought in hundreds of volunteers from across the country, Hines could scrape together only so many friends and compatriots to lend their time. She formed a partnership with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, in San Antonio, and the law firm Akin Gump assigned a young lawyer named Lauren Connell to help organize the Karnes project. But there still weren’t enough lawyers to represent the detainees, and Hines and Connell were forced to evaluate which cases were most likely to win. The remaining refugees would proceed to court alone. They would understand little of what happened, and most would be deported.
It was difficult for Hines to think about what might happen to those women next. The refugees who are returned to Central America can be subject to even greater harassment by gangs for having fled. Hector Hernandez, a morgue operator in Honduras, has said that children who come back from U.S. detention “return just to die.” Jose Luis Aguilar, the city councilor for Artesia, recalled a group deportation on the day in July when Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the facility. “He came in the morning, and that same night, they took 79 people and shipped them to El Salvador on the ICE plane,” Aguilar said. “We got reports later that 10 kids had been killed. The church group confirmed that with four of the mortuaries where they went.”
Hines was hoping the attorneys from Artesia would help represent the women in Karnes, but she had no idea whether they would be willing to do so. This was her agenda for the first meeting with Christina Brown, which took place that afternoon in a sunlit conference room in the downtown offices of Akin Gump. Hines sat at the head of a long table, with Lauren Connell to her left and an attorney from Raices named Steven Walden to her right. After a few minutes, Brown appeared in the doorway. She was wearing the same green T-shirt and black leggings she had been wearing the day before in Artesia, and she smiled sheepishly, offering a handshake to Hines.
“I’m really sorry,” Brown said with a small laugh. “I want to let you know that I believe very strongly in first impressions — but I am living out of a U-Haul right now.”
Hines smiled sympathetically as they sat down. “So,” she said. “What are you all going to do here?”
Brown paused. “Well, we know we’re going to be continuing our cases,” she said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Hines said.
“And I’m working on cleaning up our spreadsheet and figuring out who’s here,” Brown said. “Many of our clients who were transferred here had already been granted bond.”
“Wait,” Connell said. “They transferred them here to have them bond out?”
Brown sighed. “Yes,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Connell said.
“We’ve had numerous fights on this issue,” Brown said. “We’ve had family members go to pay, and they can’t because the client is already in transit to Karnes.”
Hines shook her head in disbelief.
“It’s been kind of a nightmare,” Brown said.
“Do you have people who have been detained more than 90 days?” Hines asked.
“Every one we’re going forward with on merits has been detained more than 90 days,” Brown said. “So I want to see how you all are moving forward, so I can see what resources are here for Artesia clients.”
Hines laughed. “We can barely staff our cases,” she said. “My hope was that people who were at Artesia, after they’re finished your cases, are going to help with ours.”
“If she says that enough, maybe it will come true,” Connell said.
Brown shook her head. “At the moment, I can commit to nothing,” she said. “Right now, I’m the only attorney, and there’s no guarantee that other volunteers are coming.”
Hines and Connell exchanged a look. Even if the Artesia lawyers could double or triple their workload, the number of detainees was about to overwhelm them regardless. The day before, officials in Karnes had approved a plan to expand the detention facility from about 500 beds to roughly 1,100. At the same time, two hours west of Karnes, in the little town of Dilley, the Department of Homeland Security was about to open another refugee camp for women and children. It would be the largest detention facility in the country, with up to 2,400 beds. If Hines and Brown had trouble finding lawyers to represent a few hundred women and children, there was little chance of generating support for more than 3,000.
After the meeting, Brown returned to her motel and spent the afternoon searching for an apartment, but the options were limited, and by late afternoon, she and Sischo still had nowhere to live. They decided to spend their first evening in Texas at a vegetarian restaurant downtown. As they settled into a booth at the back of the cafe, they talked about the situation they’d left behind in Artesia, where much of the town opposed the detention facility and the lawyers with equal measure. Town-hall meetings in Artesia became so heated that city officials asked the police to stand guard.
“For people there, it’s a resource issue,” Brown said. “They blame the immigrant community for coming in and being jailed, and for us having to educate their children, when they would like more resources put into their own schools.”
Sischo nodded. “That’s what a guy at the electronics store said: ‘Oh, you’re helping the illegals?’ That’s how they view it. I remember a sign that a protester was holding that was like, ‘What about our children?’ ”
“It’s a legitimate question,” Brown said. “They don’t have a lot of resources in that town, and they should have more.”
“I agree,” Sischo said. “We should not be spending resources on detaining these families. They should be released. But people don’t understand the law. They think they should be deported because they’re ‘illegals.’ So they’re missing a very big part of the story, which is that they aren’t breaking the law. They’re trying to go through the process that’s laid out in our laws.”
For Sischo, seeing the families struggle — families much like her own — was almost more than she could stand. On visits to her parents in Oregon, she struggled to maintain composure. “Every time I’ve gone home, I’ve just cried pretty much nonstop,” she said. “It’s grief and anger and hopelessness and confusion as to how this could happen and whether we’re making a difference.”
For Brown, by contrast, the same experiences seemed to have amplified her energy and commitment. “I haven’t had time to go home and cry yet,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Dilley, because then I won’t have to process anything!” Brown laughed, but she acknowledged that some part of her was ready to commit to the nomadic life of a legal activist, parachuting into crises for a few months at a time. “That appeals to me,” she said. “It’s nice to be where people need you.”
As dinner came to an end, Brown and Sischo stepped outside into the night. They had parked the U-Haul in a nearby lot, and it had just been towed.
Over the next year, most of the families who are currently in detention will wend their way through the refugee system. Some will be released on bond to await their asylum hearing; others will remain in custody until their hearings are complete. Those without an attorney will most likely fail to articulate a reason for their claim in the appropriate jargon of the immigration courts and will be deported to face whatever horror they hoped to flee. Of the 15 families who have been shepherded through the process by the volunteer lawyers so far, 14 have received asylum — “Which should be all you need to know about the validity of their claims,” Brown said.
By late spring, the construction of the new facility at Dilley should be complete. It already represents a drastic departure from the refugee camp in Artesia. Managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country, the South Texas Family Residential Center has its own promotional website with promissory images of the spacious classrooms, libraries, play areas and lounges that will eventually be available to refugees in long-term detention. Architectural drawings for the site show eight distinct neighborhoods on the campus, with dormitory housing, outdoor pavilions, a chapel and several playgrounds. How much of this will ultimately materialize remains to be seen. Last week, C.C.A. listed job openings for child care workers, library aides and mailroom clerks at the site.
Esther Olavarria, the senior counselor for immigration issues at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that there had been shortcomings in Artesia but described the Dilley facility as a correction. “We stood up Artesia very, very quickly and did the best that we could under the circumstances,” Olavarria said. “As concerns were brought to our attention by advocates, we worked with them to try to address the concerns as quickly as possible.”
Many advocates have expressed concerns about the Dilley facility as well. Its management company, C.C.A., is the same firm that ran the Hutto detention center, and it has been at the center of other significant controversies in recent years. In 2006, federal investigators reported that conditions at a C.C.A. immigration jail in Eloy, Ariz., were so lacking that “detainee welfare is in jeopardy.” Last March, the F.B.I. started an investigation of C.C.A. over a facility the company ran in Idaho, known by inmates as the “Gladiator School” because of unchecked fighting; in 2010, a video surfaced of guards watching one inmate beat another into a coma. Two years ago, C.C.A. executives admitted to fraud in their government contracts at the prison, including 4,800 hours of falsified business records. The state has now taken control of the facility.
The management contract at Dilley was also created with unusual terms. In their hurry to open the new facility, officials for the Obama administration bypassed normal bidding procedures and established Dilley under an existing contract for the troubled C.C.A. jail in Eloy. Although the Dilley camp is nearly 1,000 miles away from Eloy, all federal funding for the new camp in Texas will flow through the small town in Arizona, which will keep $438,000 of the annual operating budget as compensation. Eloy city officials say they do not expect to monitor, or even visit, the Dilley facility.
Any new refugees who surrender this spring may spend more than a year in Dilley before their asylum hearings can be scheduled. Olavarria said that officials hope the process will move more quickly, but it will depend on the immigration courts in San Antonio, which fall under the Department of Justice. “From what I’ve heard from the Justice Department, generally it’s not taking 18 months,” Olavarria said. “We’re hearing that cases are being completed in a shorter time. But it’s a case-by-case situation that depends on the complexity, it depends on continuances that are provided to seek counsel, to prepare for cases, all those kinds of things.” The cost to house each detainee at Dilley is about $108,000 per year. A study funded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of more than 500 detainees between 1997 and 2000, found that 93 percent will appear in court when placed in a monitoring program. The savings of such a program for the 2,400 detainees at Dilley would be about $250 million per year.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say the facilities in Karnes and Dilley are still insufficient to house the detainees they expect to process in the coming year. “Last year, we saw 60,000 families come in,” Olavarria said. “We’re hoping we don’t see those kinds of numbers this year, but even if we see half, those two facilities would hold a fraction of those numbers.” Olavarria said the department was not yet considering additional facilities. “We are in the middle of a battle with the Congress on our funding, so there’s very little discussion about long-term planning,” she said.
For now, the Artesia facility is closed, its bunk beds and hallways empty. Brown and Sischo remain in Texas; they rescued their U-Haul from an impound lot and found an apartment soon thereafter. That same week, an email from the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, was circulating among city residents. “The pro bono attorneys have left our community,” he wrote. “Hopefully not to return.”
Roger’s note: Divide and Conquer is the world’s oldest political strategy. Get the people that you are screwing to take their mind off you and instead fight amongst themselves while you laugh all the way (often literally) to the bank. The technique most used is that of pandering to fears, selfishness and, especially, prejudice. I remember once in a picket line supporting supermarket strikers in California, talking with a woman who was crossing the picket line to shop. “Why should they have health benefits that I don’t have?” she asked. Wrong question. What she she should have asked is, “Why don’t we all have decent health benefits?” Racism, sexism, homophobia: it all serves the ruling classes, who never hesitate to play the hate card when they need to. That Latino standing in front of Home Depot, desperate for a day’s work in order to feed his family, is not your enemy. Take a careful look instead at the bankers (banksters), the war profiteers, the corporate CEOs, the corporate media, the insurance industry, big pharma, etc. and their lackeys in the Democratic and Republican parties, if you want to know who your enemies are. This is so basic that it is mind-boggling that so many allow themselves to be pandered to. It speaks to Chomsky’s concept of manufactured consent.
Roger’s note: when it comes to deceit and hypocrisy, Barack Obama continues to fail to disappoint. The corporate media and much of the progressive blogosphere usually goes along with the chicanery. Until reading this article, I sort of accepted as fact that the president indeed had taken a step, if a small one, towards humane treatment of undocumented immigrants. Silly me.
by JOHN ORLAND
The Great Deporter’s new executive order for a “sweeping overhaul of the immigration system” deserves no praise. If there is anything “sweeping” about President Obama’s immigration policy, it is his six years of deporting 2.4 million immigrants, his repeated lies regarding his so-called legal incapacity to issue presidential executive orders to mitigate the horrors that immigrant communities have been subjected to, and his total failure to pursue anything resembling “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What Obama did do, as with his all-pervasive surveillance system, was to order the implementation of a vicious program to criminalize immigrants in order to jail or deport them at will and to spend countless additional billions to militarize the border to keep them out.
Obama made clear that his executive order was “no different than all previous Democrat and Republican Party presidents over the past half century.” This statement alone immediately conjures up the heinous “bracero programs” of decades past, when strictly controlled cheap or near slave-wage labor was systematically imported from Latin America to serve the needs of the nation’s major agricultural titans and their associated industries.
The price to be extracted by Obama’s “promise” to refrain for three years from deporting undocumented immigrant parents of children born in the U.S. is a requirement that all such immigrants officially register their names, addresses, employment records, wages, salaries, and other data with the government, thus subjecting them to immediate persecution or deportation if they don’t pass Obama’s muster. Those with previous felony convictions or perhaps lesser “infractions” of America’s racist system of “law and order” remain subject to immediate deportation.
Obama’s decree, purportedly affecting four to five million undocumented immigrants, was described by administration officials as prioritizing the deportation of “felons, not families,” as if the remaining seven to eight million immigrants not covered by his plan were little less than dangerous criminals. Indeed, immigration officials will be instructed to prioritize the hunting down and deportation of so-called “gang members, felons, and suspected terrorists.”
“Today our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it,” Obama said. But Obama’s “fix” to date has been to deport more immigrants than any and all previous U.S. presidents combined!
Obama’s order supposedly offers those who qualify the chance to remain in the U.S. temporarily for three years, as long as they pass background checks and pay back taxes—to be determined, no doubt, by tax collectors who will have the final word. Not a single immigrant will be offered a “path to citizenship” nor will any be eligible for federal benefits or mandated health-care coverage.
Obama failed to mention that these same immigrants have often had state and federal taxes deducted from their salaries or wages by merciless employers while simultaneously being denied benefits supposedly mandated to all taxpayers! Obama’s order will demand the extortion of back taxes but there will be no retroactive back payment to immigrants for their exclusion from the benefits of paying these taxes. Obama’s program is worse; it will now demand that back taxes be deducted from those who register to comply, while all benefits will still be denied.
To demonstrate his fidelity to his Republican “critics,” who will undoubtedly appreciate Obama’s supplying corporate America with a steady supply of cheap, no-benefit labor who will be required to pay enormous sums in “back taxes” for future corporate plunder, the president issued his decree in condescending and threatening language: “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
But Republican “critics” were nevertheless more than willing to partake in the great American charade that passes for real politics. “Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a YouTube video released before the president’s speech. “The president has said before, that he’s not king and he’s not an emperor. But he’s sure acting like one.”
In truth, what Obama “unilaterally” proclaimed was likely what the twin parties of capital had previously agreed to during their multi-year “debate” on immigration legislation. All sections of the ruling class understand well that cheap labor with zero benefits is a prized commodity. Obama’s supposed three-year reprieve from government deportation is little more than existing policy, in which immigration officials, in collusion with corporate America, selectively determine who will be deported and who are still urgently required to service corporate interests.
This unofficial selective persecution and deportation policy serves capitalism well. Lower wages, if wages are paid at all via employer pre-planned deportations arranged before pay day, to immigrants always exercise a downward pressure on the wages of all U.S. workers, including and especially union members. The wage differential also serves capitalism’s need to divide workers by race and legal status, with the ruling class ever placing the blame for unemployment not on its failing system but rather on immigrants who “illegally” take the jobs of “Americans.”
Government-promoted reactionary patriotism is routinely employed to scapegoat the most oppressed and exploited. Obama’s spokespersons took great care to stress that the new plan was both temporary and subject to cancellation at any time by any president.
“Deferred action [that is, postponing deportation punishment] is not a pathway to citizenship. It is not legal status. It simply says that for three years, you are not a law enforcement priority, and [we] are not going to go after you,” said one senior official. “It is temporary and it is revocable.”
Working people have nothing to gain by faint praise or other attributions of support to Obama’s racist and anti-immigrant policies—in this case, a policy likely announced with great fanfare to crudely manufacture Obama’s future “legacy” as a humanistic president concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed.
All “reforms” extracted from corporate America are derived from the independent self-organization and fightback of working people. To date, the growing immigrant rights movement has increasingly demanded an immediate end to all deportations, immediate amnesty and legalization, full benefits to all undocumented workers, and an immediate end to the militarization of the borders. The unity of the broad working class in defense of full rights for immigrants is a prerequisite to winning real victories for all the oppressed and indeed, for all workers.
Subordination of this critical struggle to support for “The Great Deporter,” or any other posturing politician, only furthers illusions in the credibility of the racist capitalist system.
The massive mobilizations in virtually every U.S. city, in which people expressed their rage against the racist grand-jury decision in the case of the police murder of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was an important step toward awakening the American people to the real source of oppression in the United States.
Similarly, the five million immigrants who struck nationwide in 2006 against the racist immigration bill proposed by Republican Congressmen James Sensenbrenner and Peter King entitled, “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act” offered a living example of the power of mass opposition and protest that raised the level of political consciousness of all. It is no coincidence that Obama’s executive order employs Sensenbrenner-type language—“terrorism, border protection, and immigration control.”
Obama’s fake decree was nothing less than a ruling-class effort to set the stage for the next round of electoral debate, in which the “lesser evil” will be once again counterposed to the so-called greater evil. But the massive 2014 election abstention rate of Latino workers—and indeed, the vast majority of all the oppressed and youth—was a stinging rebuke to Obama’s across-the-board policies of austerity, racism, environmental destruction, endless war, and atrocities against immigrants.
There are no capitalist “saviors.” The gap is narrowing between the growing hatred of capitalism’s brutality and the still modest number of acts of resistance. The prospect of explosive events that can bring millions into the streets and into the political arena—making use of a new fighting labor movement, mass organizations of struggle, and independent working-class political parties was significantly advanced when tens of thousands took to the streets nationwide to express their solidarity with Ferguson’s Black community and to condemn the inherent racism of corporate America and its militarized police-state-like criminal “justice” system.
John Orland is an immigration rights activist and staff writer for Socialist Action. He can be reached at: SocialistAction@lmi.net
Roger’s note: This article speaks of the US support for Guatemalan genocide. We should not forget that the US government in Central America trained death squads in El Salvador (in support of a repressive ultra right government) and Nicaragua (in support of the fascist Contras) and enabled the 2009 coup in Honduras that replaced a democratically elected mildly progressive government with one that has turned the country into one of the most violent and corrupt nations on the face of the earth. Your American tax dollar at work.
Decades of failed US policies in Central America have a direct link to the dire conditions that cause young children to abandon their homes and flee north. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
For once the Republicans got it right. But not in the way they think. Indeed, President Obama carries the representative blame for the debacle (including reports of sadistic abuseby U.S. Border Patrol) of largely Central American migrant children long overwhelming shelters at the border. But the guilt is much broader, ranging from successive administrations all the way down to us, as American taxpayers.
Decades of U.S. policy in Guatemala alone have turned the country into a land of wreck and ruin. This is the ultimate reason migrants have been crossing into the United States in increasing numbers in recent months. Harsh immigration enforcement policies, such as the ones the Obama administration has been championing, add insult to injury as the U.S. punishes migrants when they arrive when it should be paying people like those of Guatemala massive reparations.
“They owe it to us.”
It is indisputable that the U.S. shares significant responsibility for the genocide of tens of thousands of Guatemalans—mainly indigenous Mayans who comprised a majority of the (at least) 150,000 killed in the 1980s alone. A 1999 UN Truth Commission blamed Guatemalan state forces for 93 percent of the atrocities. That same year, former President Bill Clinton admitted the wrongness of U.S. support support for Guatemalan state violence.
U.S. culpability for Guatemala’s plight endures to this day. The problem is—then and now—the United States is in denial as a nation over what to do about its complicity.
Just ask Clinton. The day of his apology in Guatemala City, he looked genocide survivors in the face, voiced regret for the U.S. enabling their suffering, and then rejected their impassioned pleas for U.S. immigration reform because, he said, “we must enforce our laws.” Today, many continue to call on the U.S. for reform measures like temporary protected status. And still, U.S. officials meet them with silence or dismissal.
Some Guatemalans, particularly the young generation living unauthorized in the U.S., know who’s responsible for the origins of their current troubles and aren’t confused by what to do about it. Erika Perez, an indigenous Mayan student in New England, told me: “My role in the U.S. is to tell [fellow Guatemalans], ‘Take advantage of all the opportunities around us.'” After all, “They owe it to us.”
Perez says the Guatemalan economy for most of the population hasn’t recovered from the genocidal wreckage of the 1980s and continues to be subjugated by U.S.-led neoliberal economic reforms like NAFTA and CAFTA. The desperate situation keeps sending Guatemalans like her migrating as a necessary means of decent survival.
Erika crossed the Arizona/Mexico desert, the deadliest area for migrants along the border, when she was eighteen in 2002. An indigenous Mayan who then spoke Spanish but no English, she faced sexual violence and dehydration along the way—but survived. So many other Guatemalans, a majority of them from the Mayan highland areas hit hardest by the genocide, remain missing while trying to cross the same part of border, according to data acquired from the Pima County medical examiner’s Missing Migrants Project (now theColibrí Center for Human Rights).
Escaping a “Silent Holocaust”
“Opportunity,” the young Antonio Albizures-Lopez recalls, was the purpose of his family’s unauthorized migration to the United States, as well as “to escape the violence that was influenced directly by U.S. intervention”—including the murders of four of Antonio’s aunts. Albizures-Lopez grew up in Providence, RI since he was 1 year old in 1992, shortly after his mother crossed the Rio Grande River with Antonio strapped to her back.
International legal experts describe the social climate in the U.S. at the time of the genocide as a “Silent Holocaust”. In Antonio’s case, the term couldn’t be more appropriate. He was born in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where one of the military bases set up with U.S. support “maintained its own crematorium and ‘processed’ abductees by chopping off limbs, singeing flesh and administering electric shocks,” according to veteran journalist Allan Nairn who interviewed a former agent of the G-2 secret intelligence service—the notorious Guatemalan agency long on the payroll of the U.S. State Department.
Meaningful forms of justice and accountability would have a long reach. They would provide restitution following the stories of Guatemalan youth like Antonio and Erika, two of many who are carrying the burden of genocide from their parents’ generation. True accountability would also address, among other cases, the 16,472 DREAM-ers who have listed Guatemala as their country of origin when they registered for President Obama’s 2012 deferred action program (DACA). Justice and accountability would lead to fundamental changes in U.S. policies toward the Guatemalan state.
Instead, Washington offers programs such as the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a $496 million endeavor since 2008 to train and assist local security forces to counter, among other perceived threats, “border security deficiencies.” Along with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Southern and Northern Commands, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have all expanded activities in the regionunder the auspices of the war on drugs, gangs, and other criminal activity.
The U.S. formally cut off military aid to Guatemala in 1977, though U.S. funding flowed atnormal levels through the early 1980s and Guatemala enjoyed enormous military support, by proxy, through U.S. client states such as Israel, Taiwan, and South Africa.
All in all, U.S. militarization in Guatemala has altered only in wording, shifting predominantly from anti-communist to currently anti-drug and counter-terror rhetoric. The policy trend continues through the present day, spanning across the Guatemalan boundary with Mexico as the “new southern border” of the United States, in the words of Chief Diplomatic Officer for DHS Alan Bersin.
The official U.S. position on supporting Guatemalan military activities is that it “was wrong” in the past, and is no longer permissible to support Guatemalan militarization except in relation to “homeland security.” In other words, Washington exercises the “doublethink” practice of “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” to quote George Orwell.
Some Guatemalans won’t wait for U.S. immigration reform
Meanwhile, as we’ve seen here lately in Arizona, Guatemalans are still fleeing a constant renewal of U.S.-caused duress. Reviewing the most visible case, the plight of migrant children at the border has relentlessly gripped the nation. “Many of the parents of these children are in the United States,” explained Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., Julio Ligorria, “and the children go to find them.” The children also are reportedly suffering the same sorts of Border Patrol abuses long familiar to their parents’ generation, whose mistreatment often goes unnoticed.
So what next? Recognizing guilt is a crucial first step. Even more important is what comes after that recognition. Relevant here, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the function of a “guilt complex” in the American conscience regarding past and ongoing abuses. In a 1957 interview with NBC, King remarked: “Psychologists would say that a guilt complex can lead to two reactions. One is acceptance and the desire to change. The other reaction is to indulge in more of the very thing that you have the sense of guilt about.”
Recognition of U.S. guilt over the Guatemalan genocide should translate into concrete forms of remedial action which, to the degree possible, corresponds with the scope of the crime.
But Guatemalans like Erika aren’t waiting. She’s teaching Guatemalans in her community crucial skills like English, advocating to cancel deportation orders against fellow migrants, putting herself through college. She says her philosophy of “empowering people in my community is: ‘Don’t be afraid anymore.'”
Roger’s note: what the mainstream media in its news and analyses universally fail to note is that the root cause of the migration from Central America lies in the actions and policies of the U.S. government over the years that have supported repressive business oriented governments controlled by oligarchic elites. In particular the Obama/Hillary Clinton policies in support of the military coup in Honduras have resulted in Honduras being perhaps the most violent country on the face of the globe. The lucrative drug trade and the attendant violence is a symptom of US directed imperial military supported corporatism, and not the fundamental cause of the massive migration. As for the costs of implementing a humanitarian policy of dealing with children refugees, a fraction of the dollars spent on the illegal wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan would be sufficient. That the U.S. government at the direction of a president who is both heartless and gutless, is sending Honduran mothers and their children back to the most violent city in the world, that while in custody these mothers and children are treated like animals, is beyond disgusting. That the commonly held perceived solution is increased border security and deportation is not only an example of tunnel vision, but a head in the sand approach to a problem that the US government has created, and along with corporate media and both political parties, refuses to acknowledge. Imperialism and xenophobia go hand in hand.
Reuters | By Gabriel Stargardter
Posted: 07/14/2014 9:09 pm EDT
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras, July 14 (Reuters) – The United States deported a group of Honduran children as young as 1-1/2 years old on Monday in the first flight since President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending back undocumented immigrant minors from Central America.
Fleeing violence and poverty, record numbers of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed into the United States over the past year, testing U.S. border facilities and sparking intense debate about how to solve the problem.
Monday’s charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, returned 17 Honduran women, as well as 12 girls and nine boys, aged between 18 months and 15 years, the Honduran government said.
Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.
Nubia, a 6-year-old girl among the deportees, said she left Honduras a month ago for a journey that ended when she and her mother were caught on the Mexico-Texas border two weeks later.
“Horrible, cold and tiring,” was how Nubia remembered the trip that was meant to unite the pair with her three uncles already living in the United States.
Instead, her mother Dalia paid $7,000 in vain to a coyote, or guide, to smuggle them both across the border.
Once caught, U.S. officials treated them like “animals”, holding them in rooms with as many as 50 people, where some mothers had to sleep standing up holding children, Dalia said.
During the eight months ended June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them from Central America. That was double the previous year’s tally and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through.
So chaotic are the circumstances of the exodus that some of the children are not even correctly reunited with their parents, said Valdette Willeman, director of the Center for Attention for Returned Migrants in Honduras.
“Many of the mothers are sometimes not even the real mothers of the children,” she said.
Monday’s flight departed as Obama faces increasing pressure to address the surge of unaccompanied minors.
Immigrant advocates urge him to address the humanitarian needs of the migrants. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have blamed the crisis on Obama’s immigration policies and have called on him to secure the border.
Obama’s administration has stressed that Central American children who cross the border illegally will be sent home, and last week said it would speed up the deportation process.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered from gang violence and incursions from Mexican drug cartels using the region as a staging post for their trafficking operations.
Honduran President Juan Hernandez, in an interview published on Monday, blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence and ramping up migration to the United States. His wife urged the United States to do more to help.
“The countries consuming drugs need to support (us) and take joint responsibility because if there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be production and we wouldn’t be living like we are,” Ana Garcia de Hernandez said as she awaited the children.
Obama’s administration has projected that without government action, more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 could flee the three Central American nations next year.
The proposed actions will test Obama’s ability to negotiate effectively with Republican lawmakers who have blocked much of his agenda ahead of a November election when they hope to capture the U.S. Senate from his Democratic Party. (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in San Pedro Sula and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)
Roger’s note: the NY times never ceases to amaze me with its euphemisms. For the Times torture is often “enhanced interrogation.” Here, slave labor is “cheap labor.” Slave labor is alive and well in the United States of America, from the tomato fields of Florida to the government’s own more and more privatized prison system. Unless, of course, you believe that payment that ranges from zero to thirteen cents an hour is not slave labor.
From the article:
“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”
Mr. Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention. A Guatemalan native, he was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error.
Well, since prisoner “cheap” labor is saving the tax payer and the private prison corporations so much money, it must be loved by the Democrats and the Republicans. Clerical errors do happen, and Human Rights can be such a bore.
HOUSTON — The kitchen of the detention center here was bustling as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees. Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work — mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves.
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.
The federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers. But immigrant advocates question whether it is truly voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.
Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.
Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.
“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”
Mr. Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention. A Guatemalan native, he was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error. He has since been granted permanent residency.
Claims of Exploitation
Officials at private prison companies declined to speak about their use of immigrant detainees, except to say that it was legal. Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year.
“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency. Detainees in the program are not officially employees, she said, and their payments are stipends, not wages. No one is forced to participate, she added, and there are usually more volunteers than jobs.
Marian Martins, 49, who was picked up by ICE officers in 2009 for overstaying her visa and sent to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., said work had been her only ticket out of lockdown, where she was placed when she arrived without ever being told why.
Ms. Martins said she had worked most days cooking meals, scrubbing showers and buffing hallways. Her only compensation was extra free time outside or in a recreational room, where she could mingle with other detainees, watch television or read, she said.
“People fight for that work,” said Ms. Martins, who has no criminal history. “I was always nervous about being fired, because I needed the free time.”
Ms. Martins fled Liberia during the civil war there and entered the United States on a visitor visa in 1990. She stayed and raised three children, all of whom are American citizens, including two sons in the Air Force. Because of her deteriorating health, she was released from detention in August 2010 with an electronic ankle bracelet while awaiting a final determination of her legal status.
Natalie Barton, a spokeswoman for the Etowah detention center, declined to comment on Ms. Martins’s claims but said that all work done on site by detained immigrants was unpaid, and that the center complied with all local and federal rules.
The compensation rules at detention facilities are remnants of a bygone era. A 1950 law created the federal Voluntary Work Program and set the pay rate at a time when $1 went much further. (The equivalent would be about $9.80 today.) Congress last reviewed the rate in 1979 and opted not to raise it. It was later challenged in a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets workplace rules, but in 1990 an appellate court upheld the rate, saying that “alien detainees are not government ‘employees.’ ”
Immigrants in holding centers may be in the country illegally, but they may also be asylum seekers, permanent residents or American citizens whose documentation is questioned by the authorities. On any given day, about 5,500 detainees out of the 30,000-plus average daily population work for $1, in 55 of the roughly 250 detention facilities used by ICE. Local governments operate 21 of the programs, and private companies run the rest, agency officials said.
These detainees are typically compensated with credits toward food, toiletries and phone calls that they say are sold at inflated prices. (They can collect cash when they leave if they have not used all their credits.) “They’re making money on us while we work for them,” said Jose Moreno Olmedo, 25, a Mexican immigrant who participated in the hunger strike at the Tacoma holding center and was released on bond from the center in March. “Then they’re making even more money on us when we buy from them at the commissary.”
A Legal Gray Area
Some advocates for immigrants express doubts about the legality of the work program, saying the government and contractors are exploiting a legal gray area.
“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.
Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.
A 2012 report by the A.C.L.U. Foundation of Georgia described immigrants’ being threatened with solitary confinement if they refused certain work. Also, detainees said instructions about the program’s voluntary nature were sometimes given in English even though most of the immigrants do not speak the language.
Eduardo Zuñiga, 36, spent about six months in 2011 at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, awaiting deportation to Mexico. He had been detained after being stopped at a roadblock in the Atlanta area because he did not have a driver’s license and because his record showed a decade-old drug conviction for which he had received probation.
Gary Mead, who was a top ICE administrator until last year, said the agency scrutinized contract bids from private companies to ensure that they did not overestimate how much they could depend on detainees to run the centers.
Detainees cannot work more than 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, according to the agency. They are limited to work that directly contributes to the operation of their detention facility, said Ms. Christensen, the agency spokeswoman, and are not supposed to provide services or make goods for the outside market.
But that rule does not appear to be strictly enforced.
At the Joe Corley Detention Facility north of Houston, about 140 immigrant detainees prepare about 7,000 meals a day, half of which are shipped to the nearby Montgomery County jail. Pablo E. Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, which runs the center, said his company had taken it over from the county in 2013 and was working to end the outside meal program.
Near San Francisco, at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility, immigrants work alongside criminal inmates to cook about 900 meals a day that are packaged and trucked to a county homeless shelter and nearby jails.
A Booming Business
While President Obama has called for an overhaul of immigration law, his administration has deported people — roughly two million in the last five years — at a faster pace than any of his predecessors. The administration says the sharp rise in the number of detainees has been partly driven by a requirement from Congress that ICE fill a daily quota of more than 30,000 beds in detention facilities. The typical stay is about a month, though some detainees are held much longer, sometimes for years.
Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.
The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.
Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that promotes greater controls on immigration, said that with proper monitoring, the program had its advantages, and that the criticisms of it were part of a larger effort to delegitimize immigration detention.
Some immigrants said they appreciated the chance to work. Minsu Jeon, 23, a South Korean native who was freed in January after a monthlong stay at an immigration detention center in Ocilla, Ga., said that while he thought the pay was unfair, working as a cook helped pass the time.
“They don’t feed you that much,” he added, “but you could eat food if you worked in the kitchen.”