Negligence and Mayhem – We Need to Phase Out the Use of Migrant Detention

I recently watched the documentary Class Action Park, the story of a now-defunct theme park in New Jersey that became something of a cultural touchstone due to a history of spectacular negligence and mayhem. The movie describes the hare-brained construction of carnival attractions and the legal and political maneuvering that kept the park in operation for nearly two decades, despite a mounting body count and the perennial dismay of every first responder and ER doctor for a thirty-mile radius.  As the description of each attraction’s creation in defiance of good sense and the laws of physics unfolded into entirely predictable injury and calamity, my crew of pandemic-bound compatriots uttered an involuntary refrain, Greek-chorus style, of  “What the hell were they thinking??!!  Why didn’t anyone stop this???!!!” Spoiler alert: The answer to those questions consists of three parts: A) Money B) Power and C) The people that were invested in amassing A & B rather than in their obligations to protect the public.

You probably know where I’m going with this already.

In 2017, AILA gave me an award for advocacy – for me, the Trump administration started with showing up and organizing the legal response at the Atlanta airport, sounding the alarm and getting people involved in fighting the travel ban in those first chaotic hours. When I accepted the award, I talked about how I was looking forward to working to combat the administration’s policy reforms in the coming years and how we needed to stay motivated and keep advocating against the oncoming challenges. By the final months of 2020, my primary concern was trying to pull other humans out of COVID-19-infested jails where many were chronically underfed, forced into labor, subjected to forced surgeries and exposed to danger and violence. Each day was riddled with stories of retaliation by facility personnel for attempts to bring any light to what was unfolding inside.

When it dragged on and on, and we couldn’t stop it, I told myself we were documenting things, holding that space for people, bearing witness to the horror they experienced so that it would not be forgotten, so that someone, someday, could be held to account and we could change things. The response from the executive branch was largely silence, periodically marked with the staccato note of the deportation of a victim here, a witness there. I didn’t want to get out of bed for several days.

Things did start to get better, at least in the detention setting, because fewer people were being detained.  ICE’s ADP (average daily population) began to sink, either because of pressure on the administration due to litigation efforts, or due to the forced expulsion of asylum seekers contrary to international and U.S. law at the border. I held my breath, worried that we would not experience a peaceful transition of presidential power, and I was much relieved when it finally occurred. Finally, on May 19, 2021, more than nine months after the initial reports of medical abuse at Irwin County Detention Center, the team of advocates and organizers working to help the victims of that particular hellhole got word from DHS that the facility will no longer be used to house immigration detainees.

I’d like to say that is a happy ending and that we can move on to the “never again” phase of accountability.  But we can’t yet. The changes under the Trump administration weren’t the root of the problem, but rather a way to turbocharge an ugly system. In the last few weeks, we have seen a 25% increase in ADP. The conditions have not improved, and the cages are the same – still generating money for private prison corporations and local governments at the expense of due process, migrants’ agency, health, and safety.  It’s the entire ugly system – the big detention machine – reliant on the criminalization of migrants that began in the late 20th century and accelerated post-9/11, stoked on the fears of terrorism that created the expansion of civil detention – purportedly to protect society and to ensure people attend their hearings in this horribly bloated and backlogged court system.

We keep telling ourselves that we are on the side of good here – that we fight for our clients – for access, better accommodations, more accountability and transparency, better, more expedient methods of presenting cases. Opponents of immigrants’ rights falsely suggest fairness and legitimacy exists in the system because representation is granted to a few. Those select few are the small percentage who have the financial means to hire private counsel, or who came to the attention of an NGO or one of the soft-hearted warriors of the pro bono world – so that the system provides some semblance of “due process.”

Recently advocates have started calling for the shutdown of immigration detention facilities, and AILA applauded the recent moves to close two facilities in Georgia and Massachusetts. But these initiatives have also given rise to controversy about whether closing a detention facility is the right approach.

I think it is. I am going to fight to close these facilities; they cause immense harm and restrict people’s civil rights. If we are still fighting for attorney access to detained clients and for those clients to have access to soap and underwear and medicine and food without maggots 20 years from now, we have failed as advocates. I think we should be doing everything in our power to pull the plug.

“So,” you ask, “what do you want from me this time, Sarah?” I want an end to the arguing about whether it’s better for a detention center to be 20 miles away versus 200. I want you to educate yourselves on how to implement actual, measurable abolition. Here’s a nice chart for reference on what that means. I want you to advocate for a full case review for EVERYONE currently detained and their release if they don’t fall under the current ICE priorities. I want you to push for fair and humane ways to process people’s immigration paperwork, outside of detention, so that they don’t have to relive their trauma live on camera from a little box, in service of a machine that must be fed its daily bed rate so that it can churn on.

I want you all to grab hold of this problem and help pull the plug, not keep the lights on.  Please join me and the many other stakeholders in calling for and working towards an end to migrant detention. Full stop.

by Sarah Owings