On any given day, at least 34,000 people are detained in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to meet an arbitrary lock-up quota dictated by Congress. Stopping the quota would be a giant step forward in ending our reliance on detention. Grassroots Leadership researches and exposes the role of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in enacting the quota contributes to the growing national movement to stop immigrant detention.
Detention and the #EndTheQuota Campaign
Last spring, Jim Rigby opened the doors of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to Hilda Ramirez and her 10-year-old son, undocumented immigrants fleeing civil strife in Guatemala. He borrowed some furniture, set up bunk beds in the Sunday school teacher’s office — and trained church members to lock the doors and form a human shield if immigration officers come knocking.
“Do we stand up for human rights now? Or do we act like zebras on the Serengeti, hoping the lion eats us last?” said Rigby, 66, the longtime minister of one of Austin’s most liberal houses of worship. “People of good conscience,” he said, must put themselves between asylum seekers and “harm’s way.”
Rigby is part of a growing movement determined to oppose President Trump’s policies for cracking down on immigration. While thousands of protesters gather nationwide to decry Trump’s temporary travel ban on refugees and on citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations, Rigby and other activists in cities with large immigrant populations are bracing for what they fear will come next: a wave of raids and deportations.
Trump has called for the deportation of as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes on U.S. soil. In one of his first acts as president, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to look at withholding federal funding from cities that refuse to assist immigration officials, a loose collection of municipalities known as “sanctuary cities.”
Austin has become the first battleground in that conflict, where the governor and a local sheriff are now locked in a standoff over the issue. A liberal enclave in the heart of conservative Texas, the capital city lies a little more than three hours from the Mexican border. About 35 percent of its 931,000 residents are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census estimates, and the city is home to a vibrant sanctuary movement that sprang to life during President Barack Obama’s first term, when his administration carried out a record number of deportations.
In November, voters in Travis County, which includes Austin, elected a new sheriff, who campaigned on a promise not to detain people based solely on their immigration status. Hours after Trump took office, Sheriff Sally Hernandez (D) posted an eight-minute video on her official website explaining the new policy, which took effect Wednesday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a Trump supporter and immigration hard-liner, quickly fought back, accusing Hernandez of playing “a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake.”
This week, Abbott made good on a threat to withhold $1.5 million in state criminal justice grants, money that funds services for veterans, parents struggling with drug addiction and victims of family violence. He also asked state agencies by Friday to prepare a full list of all state funding provided to Travis County, suggesting that additional punishment may be forthcoming.
Abbott called on lawmakers to act urgently to ban sanctuary cities. A measure drafted by state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), an Abbott ally, would withhold state funding from cities, counties and colleges that do not comply with immigration detainers. It also would require county jailers to determine and record the immigration status of every arrestee. Supporters and protesters of the legislation crammed into the Texas statehouse Thursday for a hearing of the bill, which, as Perry acknowledged under questioning, does not actually define “sanctuary city.”
Last week, Abbott threatened to oust Hernandez, who was elected with 60 percent of the vote. Legislation to permit him to do so has yet to be filed, but a spokesman for Abbott noted that the threat to cut off state funding was sufficient to persuade the Dallas County sheriff to abandon sanctuary policies last year.
In Austin, sanctuary activists applaud the new sheriff’s stance. But they say that keeping ICE out of the county jail will not be enough to thwart the crackdown. So they’re planning mass acts of civil disobedience, soliciting churches to shelter undocumented immigrants, developing neighborhood warning systems so people know to hide when ICE comes through and training volunteers to act as human shields.
“Our plan is to prepare 500 people to do sanctuary in the streets,” said Alejandro Caceres, 29, a legal resident from Honduras who leads the ICE Out of Austin campaign for the civil rights group Grassroots Leadership.
Rigby, the church minister, acknowledges that sheltering an undocumented immigrant is risky. “When you’re aiding someone who is being called a criminal, you’re protecting them in your church, you can be charged with violating federal law,” he said.
But Rigby insists that Americans have a humanitarian obligation to provide shelter to innocent people fleeing violence and lawlessness — even if it means defying the government in Washington and the Texas statehouse.
“You got a president and a governor who are rattling swords,” Rigby said. “Would you protect people being hunted? Well, now we get to find out the answer.” Read more about The 'sanctuary city' on the front line of the fight over Trump's immigration policy
Activist groups and supporters crowded in the Grassroots Leadership headquarters in east Austin, vowing to protect undocumented immigrants amidst an incoming state legislative session and president-elect Monday morning.
“We’re here today because we know that the next president-elect [Donald] Trump has promised mass deportations and human rights violations,” Grassroots Leadership executive director Bob Libal said.
Grassroots Leadership, ICE Out of Austin and Austin Sanctuary Network members laid out plans and pledged to support undocumented immigrants in the community during a press conference.
The ICE Out of Austin campaign is overseen by civil and human rights organization Grassroots Leadership. The campaign aims to end local and state law enforcement’s practice of holding onto detained undocumented or suspected undocumented immigrants in local jails until Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal agents come to process arrests and deport them.
Sally Hernandez, Democrat and the new Travis County Sheriff who was sworn in Wednesday, has campaigned against holding onto undocumented immigrants until ICE agents arrive to arrest them. She replaced former Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, who has cooperated with ICE, according to the Texas Tribune.
Libal said he and other activists are awaiting an announcement from Hernandez explicitly stating her policy to refuse Travis County jails from complying with ICE.
“She’s promised a really progressive immigration policy that we think will … reduce detainers or eliminate … detainers in the Travis County jail,” Libal said. “We’re very much looking forward to the announcement that could come at any time.”
Austin City Council has defied state government sentiment to crackdown on immigration through actions such as enacting emergency funding to cover immigration legal fees.
State lawmakers, however, are pushing for stricter immigration laws. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s filed Senate Bill 4 outlaws “sanctuary cities” in Texas that adopt policies protecting undocumented immigrants.
Cristina Parker, immigration programs director of Grassroots Leadership, said it is an uphill battle when it comes to challenging state and federal oversight.
“We call on all state representatives and state senators to represent Travis County and the Austin area to stand with us,” Parker said. “Ultimately, this is really about us versus Trump. He has promised a campaign of terror against the immigrant community and we believe that the only way to fight back is locally.” Read more about Immigration rights groups organize day before state legislature convenes
The United States portrays itself as a beacon of freedom and liberty, yet it operates the world’s largest immigrant detention system, a burgeoning network that locks up refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants who seek protection or a new life on our shores. In 2015 alone, more than 367,000 men, women and children were imprisoned in a system of 637 public and for-profit private prisons. The Trump administration has promised a crackdown on undocumented immigrants that could set off more growth in the detention sector.
On any given day, as many as 42,000 people wait in detention as their cases slowly move through overburdened immigration courts. Some will languish for years, costing U.S. taxpayers $126 per inmate per day. Far more significant is the human cost. Incarceration often leads to illness, depression or even suicide. In little more than a decade, at least 166 immigrants have died while in detention.
Critics of detention argue that a 2009 congressional mandate requiring that ICE maintain 34,000 daily detention beds forces the agency to choose detention over alternatives. The quota has helped boost the stock of for-profit prison companies, which have looked to non-criminal immigrants as a source of growth. Immigrants nowrepresent the fastest-growing sector of the prison population.
The system is also financially burdensome. “We spend $2 billion a year just on detaining immigrants,” says Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group. “And this is only part of a much larger detention and deportation apparatus that costs us billions, but it’s also costly in human lives.” Alternatives to detention such as residential shelters are a less expensive, more humane way to comply with U.S. laws, he says. “Detention should never be the first priority.” Read more about America Beyond Detention
(AUSTIN, Texas) — More than 50 advocacy organizations have sent an open letter to President Barack Obama calling for six key reforms to dismantle the vast immigration detention and deportation apparatus before handing it over to the Donald J. Trump administration. Read more about 50 Advocacy Groups: President Obama should do these 6 things to begin dismantling deportation machine before leaving office
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) subcommittee has decided that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should continue contracting with private prison companies, which have come under fire for their incidents of preventable deaths and allegations that detainees are abused and mistreated.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson tasked the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) with creating a subcommittee to review ICE’s use of private prison companies like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, whichrecently rebranded as CoreCivic. Opponents of private prison companies have pointed to allegations of human rights abuses, including incidents of sexual abuse, as a primary reason for the closure of facilities operated by the GEO Group and CoreCivic.
HSAC released the report on December 1 after conducting interviews with detention experts, executives from the major private detention companies, and representatives from national and local immigration advocacy groups, according to the report. Members of the subcommittee also visited two ICE detention facilities, one owned and operated by ICE and the other owned and operated by a private for-profit prison company.
A fear among advocates—including Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based immigrant rights’ organization Grassroots Leadership—is that ICE will not be held accountable for the growing number of deaths at for-profit prisons. In Raquel Calderon de Hildago’s case, she was being held at CoreCivic-run Eloy Detention Center, which is considered by migrants as one of the worst places to be detained, when she had a series of seizures. She was transferred by paramedics to a nearby hospital, where she died on November 27 at the age of 36. As the Arizona Republic reported, “At the time of her death, she was awaiting deportation to Guatemala, ICE officials said. ICE said database checks indicate she had no criminal history in the U.S.”
Libal told Rewire in a phone interview that he was “heartened” by HSAC rejecting the report’s core recommendation at the hearing this week.
Libal said that while it’s “somewhat heartening” that the committee dissented, it’s important to get to the heart of the “real issue”: The reason ICE can’t extract itself from contracts with companies like CoreCivic and GEO is because there are too many people in detention—and more expected in the coming months. Any plans for mass deportation, as the president-elect has proposed, require an immediate increase in detention, as migrants awaiting their deportations are placed into detention centers for weeks and sometimes even years. This is an issue that rests squarely on the shoulders of both ICE and the Obama administration, Libal said.
“My hope, and I think a hope of a lot of advocates, was that the report would recommend that ICE reduce the number of people detained, but the report made no such recommendation,” the executive director said.
Moving forward, there are a lot of unknowns about the detention system and how it will continue to take shape. This week, the U.S. government argued at the U.S. Supreme Court that certain migrants in detention shouldn’t qualify for bond hearings after being detained for at least six months. The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy organizations are pushing back against these policies, arguing that all migrants in detention deserve legal protections and due process. Libal said it is this kind of pushback that will be needed more than ever as we enter a new administration intent on further criminalizing and targeting migrants for prolonged detention and deportation.
“We are preparing for what could be one of the darkest times in our nation’s history,” Libal said. “We are handing over the keys to a human rights violation machine to Donald Trump’s immigration force—and that is the fault of this administration. The level of detention dictated why [the subcommittee] felt so beholden to private prison interests. If we had a quarter of people in immigration detention that we do, this would be a much easier problem to solve. And the fact that ICE continues to promote reliance on detention over release from detention or community-supported alternatives is the other reason we have this huge problem.” Read more about Department of Homeland Security Will Continue Contracting With Private Prison Companies
Separately, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US has activists worried that the steps taken by the Obama administration to reduce the population of inmates in private prisons will be quickly rolled back. Trump has said outright that he supports prison privatization, and his plans for cracking down on illegal immigration would be a boon for prison operators: the stock prices of CCA and the Geo Group soared following his election.
“We are actually anticipating that the DOJ decision be quite possibly overturned. Either formally or they would be renewals or re-granting of the full contracts,” said Bethany Carson at Grassroots Leadership, a prison advocacy organization.
What has Carson and her group particularly worried is the president-elect’s promise to introduce mandatory minimums for illegal re-entry convictions after a previous deportation. Illegal entry and re-entry convictions already make up nearly half of federal prosecutions. The convicts are mostly held in thirteen so-called “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons, run by private companies, largely CoreCivic and GEO. Both facilities with which the BOP extended its contracts are CAR prisons.
Carson said that mandatory minimums would send average sentences for re-entry “through the roof,” and would require expanding the private prisons the DOJ said it would close in August.
“Expanding this existing system that federally prosecutes immigrants just for crossing the border to reunite with their families or flee dangerous situations could be one way to quite literally manufacture the so-called criminals he wants to deport,” said Carson. Read more about The US government is already quietly backing out of its promise to phase out private prisons
Last week’s “60 Minute” interview with president elect Donald Trump prompted headlines suggesting that he might be “softening” his immigration stance, compared to his extreme campaign proposal to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. The media have it wrong.
Those of us who have worked to promote sensible and humane policies for decades are bracing for what may very well be an all-out war on immigrants of unprecedented scope and intensity.
Some news reports have offered an unjustifiably charitable interpretation of Mr. Trump’s recent statement to suggest that he is becoming more “targeted.” This view was based on a few short statements where he described vague plans to immediately deport or incarcerate those with “criminal records ― gang members, drug dealers, probably 2 million, it could even be 3 million” that are “here illegally.” Mr. Trump’s numbers are wrong, and his vision is anything but “soft.” In fact, it is terrifying.
To realize these numbers during a four-year term, to say nothing of a shorter “immediate” timeframe, would require deportation rates never before experienced in this country. This, despite the fact that migration levels to the United States are relatively low and that the current administration already broke the record for removal of immigrants, earning President Obama the title of “deporter in chief” in some circles. It took the Obama administration eight years to deport 2.5 million immigrants, while Mr. Trump apparently aims to hit those numbers in four years or less. Unlike Presidents Bush and Obama, both of whom used deportations as a political pawn in failed efforts to secure immigration reforms, the President Elect has never envisioned a path to citizenship for our nation’s immigrants.
The population as described by Mr. Trump simply does not exist. Trump’s depiction of 2-3 million immigrants as “illegal,” criminal and dangerous is a myth, rooted in poor math and biased fear-mongering. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has pointed out that the likely source for the numbers is a 2012 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimate of 1.9 million “removable criminal aliens.” But more than half of this group are legally living and working in the United States. In typical Trumpian exaggeration, the President-Elect seems to have ignored that fact, and then tacked on an additional million to the DHS estimate to arrive at the fabricated 3 million.
Though Mr. Trump invokes stereotypes and fears of “dangerous illegal immigrants,” all those who’ve had a run in with the law are threatened, even those who are living and working with proper documentation, with families and no memories of a different home.
Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and leading architect of Draconian anti-immigrant laws such as Arizona’s notorious “papers please” SB1070 law used to profile and harass suspected immigrants, is Donald Trump’s chief immigration enforcement guru. Instead of deporting only those convicted, Kobach proposes too instead scrap due process protections and deport immigrants who are arrested on suspicion of crimes or gang affiliation. In this model, local law enforcement becomes prosecutor, judge, and immigration officer.
Kobach also advocates using local police officers and jailers as the “eyes and ears of the federal government,” turning arrestees directly over to ICE for deportation. This will likely entail a rapid expansion of “287g,” a federal provision that “cross-designates” local law enforcement to serve as immigration enforcement agents, commissioning them to identify, process, and detain people suspected of being undocumented.
But a majority in our nation opposes Mr. Trump’s extreme and hateful vision for immigrants. Surveys of Trump supporters, including exit polls, show that the majority support pathways to citizenship, which are not in Mr. Trump’s plans. Universities and colleges are declaring themselves sanctuary campuses. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck will not use local police to check papers or turn low-level offenders over to federal agents. Cities like New York, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Nashville, and others plan to fight Trump’s immigration agenda, with Mayor de Blasio vowing to destroy municipal identification records for immigrants rather than hand them over to immigration enforcement authorities. Churches across the country are declaring themselves sanctuaries to defend against pending deportations.
We should take Trump at his word, and anticipate that his administration will unleash a deportation regime unprecedented in recent U.S. history. We also must resist that regime at many levels by uniting with our immigrant friends, neighbors, loved ones, coworkers, and classmates in the fight for policies and programs that keep families and communities in tact. Read more about Trump Has Not 'Softened' His War on Immigrants
President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally and his selection of tough-on-crime Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general could mean big money for the private prison industry.
Immigration detention centers are particularly profitable for private prison companies because they command a higher rate for each inmate bed, he said.
Yet what’s good for investors isn’t good for the country, said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a national nonprofit group that works to reduce incarceration and detention rates.
“”They’re handing the keys to a deportation machine over to the Trump administration,” Libal said. “And I think there’s no reason to believe that the Trump administration won’t drive that machine forward through human rights protections or due process protections people in the detention system.” Read more about Trump stance on illegal immigration may aid private prisons
This past week I had the privilege of traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a border delegation through the Young Adult Volunteer program of the Presbyterian Church USA. Though I had lived on the border for a year and know this particular area quite well, I did not know exactly how this trip would turn out. Read more about Learning from the Borderlands
Deporting one immigrant costs about $10,000. According to the United States Department of Justice, the government spends approximately $5,600 on each immigrant held in a detention center. Trump has vowedto deport two to three million immigrants when he takes office in January, which means the US could spend nearly $17 billion on detention in the coming few years.
"Federal immigrant detention is the private prison cash cow," says Cristina Parker, the director of immigration programs at Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that focuses on the private prison industry. "Stocks going up was a very rational response to someone saying he's going to greatly expand the police state and deportation machine."
"They were on the run, their stocks dropped, shareholders were suing them, things were looking really bad for them," Parker says. "Trump changed all that."
In one letter sent to Grassroots Leadership by 11 women at the CoreCivic-run Laredo detention center, inmates complained about inadequate medical care and access to lawyers and other representation. One woman said that they'd been kept in a cold room overnight, leading her to develop a severe cold. Another, who has diabetes, said she had to hide bread from the guards so that she could eat it in secret when her blood sugar gets low. The women also complained of black water flooding the facilities, being given food that made them ill, and being denied access to the bathroom.
"When we go out for recreation they watch over us with shotguns in their hands as if we were criminals," one woman wrote to Grassroots Leadership. "Since because of the physical damages that I already have in my body from firearms and the psychological impact of that, they make me feel afraid." Read more about Trump’s Win Has Already Boosted Stocks of Private Prison Companies