Immigration detention is cruel and costly to both detained individuals and their families. While the elimination of detention altogether (except for those who commit the gravest offenses) would be ideal, there is no sign that will ever come to pass. In the meantime, detainees should at least be given the opportunity to work and provide for their families while in detention – and possibly help save the agriculture industry from what some perceive as imminent demise in the wake of recent immigration policies being implemented in various states across the country.
Over the past decade, approximately three million immigrants have been held in detention centers, and the number of detainees continues to grow. Around ninety percent of the detainees are male. These men are often the breadwinners of their family and their detention, which can drag on for months or sometimes even years, often results in extreme hardship to the family members they support in the United States. Additionally, immigrant detainees do not have a constitutional right to counsel in deportation proceedings, so they often have to pay for their own legal representation. Alternatives to detention, such as supervised release programs have been slow in their implementation by immigration and detention authorities, so the families of those detained continue to suffer, both emotionally and financially.
Further compounding the problem of immigrant detention is the fact that many detention centers are overcrowded. This not only leads to cramped living conditions for those who remain in detention, but also results in the transfer of detainees from the field offices where they are arrested to detention centers hundreds of miles away where there are vacant beds available. This occurs most often for detainees in Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states because of the shortage of vacant beds in the centers located these areas. Detainees held in these states often find themselves transferred to detention centers located in rural areas of Mississippi, Texas, or Louisiana (Texas and Louisiana are two of the states that are most likely to receive transfers). The repercussions of such a transfer are serious. In addition to loss of freedom and financial hardships, immigration detainees are also removed from their support network and their local community. They also become subject to the laws of the jurisdiction in which their detention center is located. The federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit presides over cases from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – home to several large detention centers – and is notorious for deciding cases in a manner that is hostile to undocumented immigrants.
This holds true for the states under the jurisdiction of the Eleventh Circuit as well – which recently upheld most of the sections of Alabama’s exceedingly stringent immigration legislation. Consequently, droves of immigrant families have begun fleeing states such as Georgia and Alabama in fear of getting caught up in the sweeping enforcement efforts of local officials authorized by legislation that criminalizes not carrying proper identity documents, forces public schools to determine students’ legal status, and expands the power of local police officers to investigate the immigration status of drivers during routine traffic stops. In the wake of these recent changes, multitudes of undocumented immigrants have abandoned their jobs, many of which were in the farming industry. While the legislation has been promoted under the guise that it will bring jobs to the “Americans” in the state, no such trend has taken shape, in large part due to an aversion to the low wages that most farm workers are paid and the physical strains of the work. Farmers are worried. A recent NPR report noted that millions of pounds of watermelons, peaches, blackberries, and cucumbers were left to rot in the fields this summer.
What is needed is a work-release type of program for immigration detainees who are being held in centers in states with strong farming industries. Detainees who opt in to the program can work and receive a steady wage. Farmers will not have to worry about trying to fill the vacancies left by undocumented workers with uninterested Americans, or leave their crops to rot in the fields. The detainees can use the money to help support their families, secure legal counsel, or purchase commodities that make life in detention slightly easier to endure. The outlook for reform of the immigration detention system is very grim, but has the to potential to grow from a single seed of change.
Alicia A. Caldwell, Agriculture Industry Fears Disaster If Illegal Immigration Enforcement Program E-Verify Is Implemented, Huffington Post (June 4, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/04/agriculture-industry-e-verify-illegal-immigration_n_871391.html.
Campbell Robertson, Alabama Wins in Ruling on Its Immigration Law, New York Times (Sept. 28, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/29/us/alabama-immigration-law-upheld.html.
Dora Schiro, Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations, Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Oct. 6, 2009), http://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/odpp/pdf/ice-detention-rpt.pdf.
Greg Asbed and Sean Sellers, The High Cost Of Anti-Immigrant Laws, The Nation (Oct. 31, 2011), http://www.thenation.com/article/163920/high-cost-anti-immigrant-laws.
Gretchen Gavett, Map: the U.S. Immigration Detention Boom, PBS Frontline (Oct. 18, 2011), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/race-multicultural/lost-in-detention/map-the-u-s-immigration-detention-boom/.
US: Remote Detainee Lockups Hinder Justice, Human Rights Watch (Dec. 2, 2009), http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/11/30/us-remote-detainee-lockups-hinder-justice.