Immigration reform has all but stalled in the House of Representatives leaving many documented and undocumented immigrants unsure of their status in the United States. While reform has many facets the focus continues to be amnesty and better treatment for undocumented immigrants as well as border security. However, the immigration reform is extremely important for persons confined in immigration detention centers across the nation. Last year alone, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authorized the detention of over 400,000 undocumented immigrants, the most since its inception. While many view the collective deportation of these persons as a positive, the fact is that they have not technically committed a crime. Instead, the U.S. government detains thousands of non-violent offenders daily, with the only justification being a vague perception of danger.
The fact is that living in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, meaning that the punishment for illegally residing in the U.S. is simply deportation. However, the U.S. government and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) continues to feed the illogical assumption that undocumented immigrants are dangerous, criminal offenders by holding them in civil detention prior to trial. Civil detention in immigration pretrial is not a new federal policy. Detention has been a part of immigration policy for over half a century. However, recently the total persons detained per year have skyrocketed, as has the price of detaining these individuals (a reported $2 billion dollars in 2012).
While DHS has taken steps to reform the detention system it can only operate under the guidance of U.S. law. With the Senate’s immigration bill came a small step towards reform that would require ICE to consider alternatives to detention such as house arrest, and electronic monitoring. It does not completely denounce the act of detaining non-dangerous persons. But it is movement in the right direction. However, while Congress continues to balk on immigration reform, non-dangerous detainees in states such as Arizona are suffering at the hands of an outdated and discriminative detention system.
A 2011 ACLU report details the detention (for several months) of several undocumented immigrants who presented both ties to their community, and no danger to themselves or others. A man named Joe recounts receiving verbal abuse and maltreatment from jail officials. This sort of senseless abuse given to civil offenders is just horrendous. While these people may not be documented U.S. citizens, they should still be provided basic human rights protected by our Constitution (such as due process), especially if their only crime is civil.
They are just a few examples of what has become an unfortunate side effect to the detention of criminal offenders. If the U.S. is going to claim itself as a champion of civil rights, Congress cannot allow this senseless detention to continue.
Or else what is next? Will we detain other civil offenders such as jaywalkers?
This article is certainly not a call to end all detention of undocumented immigrants. There have been multiple accounts of violent offenders, who also happen to violate civil immigration laws. These persons who present a clear danger to their community, whether it be from gun violence or other crime should certainly be detained for their criminal offenses.
However, our nation needs comprehensive reform that provides civil offenders like Joe the ability to access legal counsel, and to spend time with family while awaiting trial and possibly deportation. Despite what many seem to believe, our legal system is based around the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Unless there is valid reasoning for an undocumented immigrant’s detention, there is absolutely no reason to assume that based on their citizenship status they present a danger to their community.
While deportation is certainly a necessary component of border security and immigration reform, the detention of non-dangerous immigrants is as ridiculous and flawed as the system utilized to judge the risk or danger each person presents. Our country needs a complete overhaul of an immigration system that is supposed to provided liberty and justice for all.