Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having a Facebook conversation with my friend Rozalinda about the “comprehensive immigration reform (CIR)” bill. It began organically and is informal. It’s intended to be a bit of a stream of consciousness conversation of the sort folks used to have in the French salons of old (but hopefully less pretentious :)).
Rozalinda has archived our conversation here. For those interested in immigration issues and in the carceral state, I invite you to read Rozalinda’s thoughts in particular, she is really brilliant and visionary. Today, I’ve decided to share my latest Facebook note. Both Rozalinda and I invite others to join in the conversation. Feel free to leave comments, ideas, and thoughts at the blog. The more the merrier…
It’s taken a few days to respond because as you know I am always swamped with work.
As I’ve been slowly making my way through this “immigration bill,” I have of course noticed that it explicitly excludes people with criminal convictions (of various kinds). Frankly, I understand why it would be framed in this way. I am assuming that the bill’s writers think that this will make it more palatable to certain constituencies. It ensures that only the so-called “deserving” will have access to this potential “gift” of status normalization and citizenship.
The focus on excluding “criminals” has been the part of the bill that has absorbed most of my attention and interest. I want to address myself to some of the points that you raise about immigrant detention and deportations. Writing on the Al-Jazeera blog, Beth Caldwell offers some useful historical context about the uses and purpose of deportation:
“Deportation has a long track record as a tool used to rid societies of people deemed socially undesirable, and excluding those with criminal convictions from immigration reform is consistent with its historic use. Political theorist William Walters traces the origin of modern deportation to political banishment employed by ancient Greece and Rome, the expulsion of poor or religiously unpopular groups during the Middle Ages in Europe, and the forced movement and genocidal practices of Nazi Germany.
Walters argues that during the late 19th century and early 20th century “states increasingly used deportation as a way of governing the welfare of their populations, both by excluding the socially ‘undesirable’ (paupers, prostitutes, anarchists, criminals, the insane, excludable races, etc) and by removing foreign labour… during periods of economic recession”.
The emergence of the term “criminal alien”, designed to both demonise and alienate, exemplifies the relationship between American immigration policy and social cleansing.”
Interestingly within the immigration advocacy community, deportation as a concept is almost never troubled. It is taken as a given that we must deport people. Here’s a quote from a press release announcing a new report that was published by Human Rights Watch:
“The US government is turning migrants into criminals by prosecuting many who could just be deported,” said Grace Meng, US researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Many of these migrants aren’t threats to public safety, but people trying to be with their families.”
So advocates are explicitly conceding that some migrants can and should “just be deported” rather than prosecuted for their “crime” of living without documentation in the country. It’s a major concession in my opinion and buys into the framing of the state.
While the current “CIR” bill moves through the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security budget appropriation bill is also being debated on a parallel track. I was particularly interested to read a couple of days ago that Texas Congressman John Culberson “secured language in the [appropriation] bill that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use all vacant public and private sector detention facilities to house the detained illegal alien population. ICE will no longer be able to claim it does not have the space to lock up illegal aliens, thereby preventing them from arresting and detaining them.”
So as the Congress works to supposedly “reform” the immigration system on the one hand, on the other it is preparing for the jailing and incarceration of more people. This is something that is basically happening out of the view of most Americans. In addition, the current Senate gang of eight bill includes provisions suggesting that borders must be certified to be “secured” before the “path to citizenship” can officially open for millions of undocumented people. This means that deportations MUST necessarily continue in order for the promised “path to citizenship” to open. What kind of Faustian bargain is this?
While the political rhetoric focuses on deporting “dangerous criminals,” according to ICE’s own statistics in 2012 nearly 35% of the people kicked out of the country had drug or alcohol convictions. The “dangerous criminal” formulation is of course a canard. But it’s an effective one because it is shorthand in this country for those who can be disposed of and those who should be demonized & discounted.
Here’s the problem [as I see it] in addressing this aspect of CIR, we haven’t done a good job opening up the space for discussions about prison abolition in the broader culture. This therefore greatly constrains our ability to have transgressive conversations about ideas such as “criminal aliens” within the context of CIR. Here’s an example of what I mean. While prisons are places where we warehouse people to punish them in this country, they also do the ideological work of isolating and disappearing undesirable populations in the name of “rehabilitating them” and protecting the “good” citizens. This is very important to remember as we talk about immigrants who are always categorized as desirable or not. The rhetoric in the “immigration bill” and more importantly in discussions about the bill suggests that we don’t want to criminalize” and lock up the “good immigrants.” This bill institutionalizes these distinctions and creates new ones. As such, a lot of work has to be done by advocates to prove that immigrants are in fact “good.” It’s a trap and one wonders if advocates are inevitably doomed to fall into it.
The irony of all of this is that the carceral state is deeply invested in circulating “conversion stories” about the “reformed criminal.” Rehabilitation is supposed to be a central tenet of the American prison system. Prisoners themselves often adopt this rhetoric in their writing and in their speeches. They talk about prison being ‘the best thing’ that ever happened to them. They talk about being ‘changed’ or ‘transformed.’ This language and these ideas are embedded and reified within the culture at large. It’s a story that everyone knows. It explains the popularity of films like the Shawshank Redemption.
But interestingly, CIR offers no possibility of a “conversion story” for an immigrant who has been criminalized. That person is automatically disqualified from a quest for citizenship. The immigrant who is criminalized is forever a ‘criminal’ and will be precluded from ever gaining citizenship rights. Why can’t the immigrant be ‘rehabilitated?’ What does this mean about what the country actually believes about the possibilities of so-called ‘rehabilitation’ for ‘criminals?’ How can we use this seeming contradiction as the basis for calling for prison abolition? If the prison is abolished, will we also be rid of the concept of ‘rehabilitation?’ Does this then afford us an opportunity to get outside of the constraints of the concept of “criminality?” These questions are, I think, deserving of more consideration. Without answers though, I think that this leaves immigration reformers in a box that they cannot escape. I want to think more about this box and what it keeps contained when I have a chance…
In the meantime, I’ll give Beth Caldwell [who I cited earlier] the final word:
“The immigration bill currently pending in the US Senate further exacerbates the demonisation of immigrants – primarily Latino and black – who have gotten into trouble with the law. In doing so, the bill falls short of its stated purpose of being “comprehensive” in its effort to reform immigration law. It fails to address some of the most problematic aspects of contemporary American immigration law, including the forced separation of American families.”
Below is an image from the Migration Now portfolio. This image was created by artist Molly Fair.
Fair’s image calls for an end to the detention system and an end to the abuse of immigrants’ rights. With the proliferation of laws and enforcement policies that seek to criminalize immigrants in the U.S., immigration detention has become a fast growing form of incarceration. The for-profit detention industry is growing, in spite of the fact that detention facilities have been found to subject people to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. ICE and its supporters continue to defend the substandard conditions of detention centers, denying that people’s human rights are being violated.
See the entire portfolio of powerful images here.
At all ten of the facilities, people reported waiting weeks or months for medical care; inadequate, and in some cases a total absence, of any outdoor recreation time or access to sunlight or fresh air; minimal and inedible food; the use of solitary confinement as punishment; and the extreme remoteness of many of the facilities from any urban area which makes access to legal services nearly impossible.
Detention Watch Network calls for the immediate closure of these facilities. One of these detention centers is the Tri-County Detention Center which is the only privately-run immigrant detention center in Illinois. You can read a summary of the terrible conditions at Tri-County HERE (PDF).
Next Monday, I will be releasing to the public a set of resources about policing, violence, and resistance that me and my friends have been working on for over a year. Regular readers of Prison Culture are aware of this work since I have been previewing some of what I have learned about the history and current manifestations of oppressive policing here.Today (as a preview of coming attractions), I am excited to share a new zine by my friend Rachel Marie-Crane Williams titled “Blue & Black: Stories of Policing and Violence.”
I’ve waxed poetic about Rachel at length here so I won’t embarrass her by gushing any further. I have already expressed my gratitude to her and she knows that I am in awe of her talent. So thank you, Rachel.
I hope that everyone reading this post will take the time to share the zine with someone else who you think should read it. For those who are in the Chicago area, we will be unveiling the zine and many other resources on Saturday May 5th at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Details of the event are here and we will have a few printed copies of the zine on hand.
I am swamped this week with work and several other projects so I will only post if there is any breaking news or if I feel an urge to rant. I hope to be back to regular posting next week.
I write a lot about the history of the convict leasing system on this blog. I don’t think we can properly consider U.S.labor, racial, or penal history without a thorough understanding of that pernicious system.
After chasing many immigrants off resulting in tons of agriculture jobs being unfilled, the state of Alabama has a bright new/old idea. The state is considering using prisoners to fill the void left by the flight of immigrant labor:
“Agriculture officials in Alabama are looking into using prisoners to fill a labor shortage that the agency blames on the state’s controversial new law targeting undocumented immigrants.
The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries is meeting with south Alabama farmers and businesses in Mobile on Tuesday. Deputy commissioner Brett Hall says the agenda includes a presentation on whether work-release inmates could help fill jobs once held by immigrants.
Hall says planting season is coming up, and some growers fear most of their workers are gone. The agriculture agency says the new law has caused a chronic labor shortage on Alabama farms.”
Anyone who knows anything about Alabama’s sordid history of convict leasing should not be surprised that the state would turn to prisoners to do the back-breaking work that others will not do.
Mary Ellen Curtin’s excellent study about black prisoners in late 19th century Alabama illuminates episodes in American history that are pretty much unknown to us. Curtin contends that Alabama Democrats in the late 1800s turned to the convict lease system to address the state’s financial troubles. Coal companies were happy to make use of this convict labor but they were not the primary force pushing the practice. Curtin suggests that the lease system in Alabama left a lasting legacy:
“In the words of Populist critic William H. Skaggs, the lease was ‘vile,’ ‘pernicious,’ ‘excrable,’ ‘venal,’ and ‘brutal.’ It perpetuated ‘despotism’ by binding Alabama’s mineral interests to its political elite. It held the legal system hostage to the crass self-interest of county sheriffs, who collected fees for every prisoner they arrested, and politicians, who refused to forgo revenue paid for in human suffering. It linked race and criminality in a new and powerful way. It generated peonage by forcing convicted individuals to escape prison by allowing a local white landowner to pay their fine and thus control their labor. The lease shaped Alabama’s political economy and contributed to the legalized repression of African Americans during the age of segregation. Government officials and corporations willingly and knowingly traded prisoner’s lives for profit and revenue (p.10).”
Now that the state of Alabama has run off the undocumented workers who were willing to take on back-breaking agricultural work, they are planning to return to their tried and true ways of exploiting prisoners. We should remember Alabama’s history and legacy of convict leasing and we should strongly oppose a reinvented version of that system. We should reject trading the lives of undocumented immigrants for the lives of prisoners.
Regular readers know that I have written about the intersection between immigrant detention and the prison industrial complex intermittently on this blog. You can find some of the posts here, here, and here.
Just recently I’ve become aware of the fact that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is attempting to build a huge, private immigrant detention center in a small town called Crete, Illinois, just south of Cook County. A coalition of individuals and organizations are mobilizing to create an action plan to stop this center from being built. As I get more information on that campaign, I will of course share it here.
In the meantime, I have come across a few resources that I would like to share about how criminalizing immigrants is big business. First, I suggest that everyone check out the Immigrants for Sale site. They are doing great work raising public awareness about these issues. Below is one of their latest videos about how private prisons are profiting off the detention of immigrants.
Another resource that I discovered over the past six months is a series of audio stories by the Common Language Project about the history of immigration detention and also about how immigrants are being treated in detention in the state of Washington today. They are excellent and informative. I highly recommend listening.
The excellent PBS show called “NOW” did a terrific expose about the nexus between immigrant detention and private prisons in 2008. You can watch that report here.
Finally, I am privileged to own two limited editions of a zine titled Detained by artist Eroyn Franklin. The zine follows the story of two immigrants as they navigate the detention process. The publication is educational and moving. I don’t know if there are still copies available but you can see various photographs of the images which were displayed as part of an exhibit earlier this year.
I’ve been wanting to post this here for a couple of weeks but didn’t get to it. Kudos to Brave New Films and The Cuentame Campaign for Spearheading this campaign!
U.S. taxpayers are spending at least $18.6 million per day to house an estimated 300,000 to 450,000 undocumented immigrants who are incarcerated and eligible for deportation from the United States, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The cost per day for these prisoners is based on Justice Department incarceration cost estimates from 2001 and on the lower-end figure of 300,000 incarcerated deportable undocumented individuals, which means the actual expense today could be substantially higher than $18.6 million per day. Source: DHS FY11 Performance Report
Immigration reform can’t come soon enough! Criminalizing immigration status is inhumane and a waste of valuable resources.