Here are two simple actions you can take TODAY to confront the Trump administration’s detention machinery:
Block new detention contracts in TX!
Earlier in January we wrote about Immigration and Customs Enforcement looking to extend 10-year long contracts to three facilities in Texas. Today we are sharing a campaign from Texas-based Grassroots Leadership and our partners at the Detention Watch Network. See below:
Since the creation of the first detention center in the US, communities across the county have actively fought to shut down immigration jails that lock away loved ones, neighbors and friends. Immigration jails are inhumane, strip people of their dignity and agency, and must be shut down for good.
Right now, ICE is working to extend contracts for three Texas detention centers that will prolong detention in the state for the next 10 years. The facilities are the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin, the South Texas Detention Complex near San Antonio, and the Houston Processing Center.
Members of Congress need to hear from you now. Death and ongoing allegations of abuse should be enough of a reason to close down these facilities full stop.
Fill out this form, and Grassroots Leadership will send a postcard on your behalf to your representatives and members of key committees with the power to intervene.
Texas already incarcerates a quarter of all immigrants detained nationwide—we cannot allow for this to become the state’s reality for the next decade and serve as a model for detention expansion nationwide.
Gain release of hunger strikers in LA!
We’ve also been following the case of hunger strikers at LaSalle Detention facility in Jena, Louisiana. The men have passed the 75 day mark – approaching 80 days! Freedom for Immigrants has launched a petition demanding their release you can add your name to here.
Five South Asian men have reached the 75th day of a hunger strike in the GEO Group-operated LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana where they have been subjected to the tortuous procedure of forced-hydration and force-feeding. According to medical professionals, 75 days without adequate nutrition is when vital organs begin to fail.
The growing number of hunger strikes in ICE prisons across the country are no coincidence. It is indicative of complete disbelief in a fair legal process and the lengths ICE is willing to go to indefinitely detain them. Some of these men have been locked up for nearly 2 years. We are deeply concerned that ICE appears willing to let these men die in detention to make an example of them rather than be released to the community, where each man has family or close friends willing to provide housing and support.
It is a new year, and a new test of immigration enforcement policy and strategy in Mexico. Recall that, last year, the Mexican government agreed to adopt a set of enforcement mechanisms under threat of sanctions from the United States. Trump threatened to add tariffs of 25% on all goods from Mexico unless the government ramped up its enforcement, and in essence, kept asylum seekers from Central America away from the U.S. border. The agreements included an expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocol (commonly called the “Remain in Mexico” policy), Mexico’s deployment of 12,000 National Guardsmen to the southern border to stem migration, and its decision to adopt other measures to slow border crossings.
The Washington Office on Latin America issued an excellent report on the conditions created by these measures. Their report, “The ‘Wall’ before the Wall” came out in December, and can be read in its entirety here. A summary of key findings include:
An increase in apprehensions – up to 31,416 in June 2019, the highest monthly apprehension rate recorded since 2001.
Detention facilities are operating well beyond capacity.
The deployment of 12,000 National Guardsmen in reality means deploying Army and Naval police and other military units, temporarily assigned to border duty. Soldiers, not trained for such a mission.
A surge in asylum-seekers in Mexico has strained the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, already understaffed and reliant on support from the UNHCR.
Crimes against migrants continue unabated, despite the presence of National Guardsmen.
Against this backdrop, news over the last two days of the treatment of a caravan of migrants, many from Honduras, is not surprising. From Vox:
About 4,000 migrants had requested passage by presenting a petition addressed to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the bridge across the Suchiate River, which connects the port of entry at Ciudad Hidalgo to Guatemala. But after authorities refused to open the gates to the port, about 500 migrants attempted to cross the border by wading through the river.
In an unusual show of force, Mexican National Guard troops carrying riot shields fired tear gas and threw rocks at the migrants on the riverbank to stop them from crossing. The migrants threw rocks of their own at the guardsmen, according to NPR’s James Fredrick. Amid the chaos, Reuters reported that some families were separated.
It was yet another instance in which Mexico has sought to clamp down on Central American migrant caravans arriving at its border with Guatemala. The government wants to avoid antagonizing US President Donald Trump, who in 2019 threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican goods if the country did not step up its immigration enforcement efforts. Mexico also simply lacks the capacity to manage such large numbers of migrants.
Hundreds of Central American migrants who entered southern Mexico in recent days have either been pushed back into Guatemala by Mexican troops, shipped to detention centers or returned to Honduras, officials said Tuesday. An unknown number slipped past Mexican authorities and continued north.
The latest migrant caravan provided a public platform for Mexico to show the U.S. government and migrants thinking of making the trip that it has refined its strategy and produced its desired result: This caravan will not advance past its southern border…
Honduran officials said more than 600 of its citizens were expected to arrive in that country Tuesday by plane and bus and more would follow in the coming days.
Of an additional 1,000 who tried to enter Mexico illegally Monday by wading across the Suchiate river, most were either forced back or detained later by immigration agents, according to Mexican officials.
Most of the hundreds stranded in the no-man’s land on the Mexican side of the river Monday night returned to Guatemala in search of water, food and a place to sleep. Late Tuesday, the first buses carrying Hondurans left Tecun Uman with approximately 150 migrants heading back to their home country.
Mexican authorities distributed no water or food to those who entered illegally, in what appeared to be an attempt by the government to wear out the migrants.
As the spring approaches more caravans are likely. What the new enforcement measures will mean in terms of deterring people from even trying the crossing is hard to say. More likely, if caravans become impossible, people will be forced back into migrating in small groups, becoming prey for gangs. The entire deterrence framework is based on the assumption that asylum claims are suspect, and thus if people know they won’t succeed they won’t even try. However, when the reality is that people are literally fleeing for their lives and seeking security for themselves and families, they will simply try another way to get it done. All Trump and Obrador are doing is making it even more dangerous for them to do so.
Sunday, January 11 marked the ten-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, centered near Port-au-Prince, that killed 220,000 or more people, and displaced millions. Being a ten year anniversary, there were a number of retrospective political analyses looking at the current crisis through the lens of events in the ten years since the quake. The weakening of the economy, corruption in the deployment of development assistance, the cholera outbreak brought on by UN carelessness in 2010, and additional disasters in the intervening years like Hurricane Matthew, all punctuated by controversial election processes, serve as a backdrop for discussions of the current economic crisis and protests calling on president Jovenel Moïse to step down. What lessons emerged in a week of commemoration? Let’s see….
One lesson, apparently, is the need for new legislation in the U.S. Congress: The Haiti Development, Accountability and Institutional Transparency Initiative Act. I’m not sure the intent of the title, but it comes close to just being the HAITI Act – which is…clever? This act was introduced specifically to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. The bill requires a number of investigations: Investigations into the massacre at La Saline, how to better protect the freedom of the press, how to better take action against corruption through investigating individual governmental and non-governmental leaders, and assessing delivery of U.S. disaster assistance, including investigation of the Caracol industrial park (the only major U.S.-funded project anyone can really point to in the last ten years, and not usually positively). None of this is particularly controversial. I mean who could argue against investigating human rights violations, corruption and assessing the impact of U.S. aid, right? But as the primary mechanism for these investigations in the bill is the U.S. State Department in “consultation” with the non-governmental sector, I am not holding my breath for a substantive re-evaluation of anything, assuming the bill even gets a vote.
Meanwhile, over the last week the major transition in Haiti was the departure of two-thirds of the Senate, and all of the lower house. In the absence of elections, originally scheduled for last October, all of these Parliamentary terms expired. The ten remaining senators cannot form a quorum. As a result, starting Monday, January 13, President Jovenel Moïse began governing through decree. His first act was a commitment to allocate the money saved by not having to pay salaries to members of Parliament to build 10 new schools. From Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald, “The amount, about $16.3 million, would have gone to pay 118 members of the Lower Chamber of Deputies and 19 senators this year. The entire budget of the Parliament is roughly $60 million. Moïse did not say what he plans to do with the rest of the money.” By sending a message that Parliament is unnecessary and/or wasteful, the symbolism of Moïse’s first decree is somewhat alarming – though in the short-term it is likely to play well. Certainly the country needs new schools.
Toward the end of the week Moïse was indicating he would use his decree power to offer a new constitution that would be put to a vote through a popular referendum. Reuters reported, “The president aims to get the new constitution drafted within three months of being started, the source said, and voted on in a referendum by year-end.” Specific proposals are not yet drafted, but the sense is that a new constitution would seek to weaken the authority of the Prime Minister/Parliament in Haiti’s system of dual executive rule. In times past, a presidential, or unitary executive, has been promoted with mixed reception. Hard to say where all of this will go.
With the partisan opposition sidelined (along with parliament), perhaps Moïse will have more space to operate. However, while members of parliament may have been the most vocal opponents, they were hardly the only ones. Certainly among the younger generation of activists represented in some sense by the PetroChallenger movement, most of the political leadership is viewed as corrupt. Which is just to say Moïse may not be the best person to lead constitutional reform, given that the country has periodically erupted into massive protests over the last 18 months in an effort to get rid of him.
Everybody knows this, of course. It is just worth repeating, as the U.S. government and international organizations continue to act as if the problems in Haiti are institutional design problems, and somehow Moïse’s political survival would be emblematic of successful design. “Moise won his election, after all,” they’ll say, “he should finish his term.” Without a parliament, Moïse can write his own electoral law and offer constitutional reforms. The United States will have Moïse’s back because ultimately the U.S. government only wants enough stability to keep Haiti profitable for those who seek to use it (not the people who live there). The Trump administration made this clear by parading a series of officials through Haiti in December for photo ops in order to demonstrate their commitment to Moïse.
Which brings us back to the elephant in the hemisphere: U.S. policy. One consistent theme over the last ten years -— really the last 216 years — is the sense of entitlement with which the U.S. government lectures Haitians (really everybody, but I am trying to focus here). It is a bizarre dance whereby the U.S. government intervenes on behalf of a relatively small elite, to keep them in power over the express desire of most Haitians, while keeping the impoverished majority at bay (or at least unrepresented). It was the Obama administration that gifted Martelly and then Moïse to Haiti, after all, in the name of appearances. Then, when things don’t go well, some U.S. policy maker or congressional committee steps up to the mic to critique that same elite for lousy governance. I’m not sure the critique helps so much. What might help? Stepping out of the way so an actual democracy could emerge in Haiti. Then Haitians could hold each other more directly accountable. They would do a much better job I think. They could hardly do worse than the UN/US/Core Group-installed government they’ve been saddled with.
That, at least, is one lesson one might draw from the last ten years.
Immigration Courts in the United States are not independent courts, but rather fall under the Department of Justice. Immigration cases are heard through the Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review. While no court is ever fully insulated from the partisanship run amok that dominates our current state of policy, immigration courts are on the front line. They are in essence forced to implement Department of Justice rule changes – many of which end up being challenged in federal courts. What rules apply and when, and even in which immigration courts, is not always clear even to the judges, much less to immigrants and their attorneys.
It is a chaotic system. It has always been a chaotic system, but the current administration has certainly made it worse. Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, implemented a number of rule changes that made things worse. HIs rule denying asylum to people fleeing gangs or domestic violence meant increased denials, increased appeals, and federal court challenges to the rule itself. He also mandated a review of some 300,000 cases which sunk the courts’ dockets, already heavy, to over a million case backlog. Under Sessions’s and now Barr’s leadership, court judges are expected to fulfill a minimum number of cases, which most judges are not able to do.
In this system, there is tremendous variation across the courts. Whether an immigrant gets asylum or not has much more to do with which judge hears it than the merits of the case itself. Last year, we shared a profile of an immigration judge in Louisiana who had not granted asylum in a single case, after hearing over 200 in five years. In a court in San Francisco, asylum is granted at a rate of over 90%.
The judges themselves are organized into a union, which has sought to normalize the system, and give the courts an independent standing. The Trump administration is trying to get the union abolished.
The Associated Press sent a team of reporters out to 11 different cities around the country to monitor activity. Their findings, published late last week, offer eye-opening insight into the world of immigration law. Against a backdrop of individual stories and interviews with judges, they discuss the general turmoil they witnessed, including:
Chasing efficiency, immigration judges double- and triple-book hearings that can’t possibly be completed, leading to numerous cancellations. Immigrants get new court dates, but not for years.
Young children are everywhere and sit on the floor or stand or cry in cramped courtrooms. Many immigrants don’t know how to fill out forms, get records translated or present a case.
Frequent changes in the law and rules for how judges manage their dockets make it impossible to know what the future holds when immigrants finally have their day in court. Paper files are often misplaced, and interpreters are often missing.
As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, wait times are increasing with the backlog. The average time for clearing an asylum case is close to three years, and nearly a quarter take closer to four years. While 98.7% of the immigrants with asylum cases made every court appearance last year, simply getting to court doesn’t mean your case will be heard. Lack of interpreters, new rule changes and so on, can mean rescheduled hearings – two years later. Meanwhile, denial rates increase, and the administration has even sought to offshore parts of the system. Today, people wait in Mexico for immigration court hearings, which then takes place in a tent in a border town in Texas. In these hearings, the media and other observers are denied or limited in their access, as the so-called “court” infrastructure is run by the Department of Homeland Security not the Department of Justice.
What could go wrong?
Trump administration deporting Honduran women and her children to Guatemala
Under an “Asylum Cooperation Agreement” with Guatemala, the Trump administration is taking the unprecedented step of deporting people who seek asylum in the United States to Guatemala. This is an extension of Trump’s “transit ban” under which the administration refuses immigrants access to U.S. asylum procedures if they traveled through a third country before arriving at the U.S. border. However, even people from Mexico, for whom the transit ban would not apply, may be soon be deported to Guatemala either to seek asylum there or return home.
Lawyers and advocates are mobilizing to try to stop U.S. immigration officials from deporting a young Honduran mother and her two sick children to Guatemala, where the Trump administration has sent dozens of asylum-seekers in recent weeks as part of a controversial deal with the Central American country.
The 23-year-old migrant mother and her two daughters — a 6-year-old and 18-month-old baby — were apprehended at the U.S. border in Texas in December and are slated to be sent to Guatemala on Tuesday, according to court records. The family’s lawyers say the two girls, who have been sick and were recently hospitalized, are in no condition to be deported to Guatemala…
If the family is deported to Guatemala, it will join 209 asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador — including more than 50 children — who have been sent there by the U.S. under an “Asylum Cooperative Agreement” with the Guatemalan government. Those subject to the agreement are denied access to America’s asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border and required to choose between seeking refuge in Guatemala or returning home.
The deal has elicited strong criticism from advocates, who point to Guatemala’s skeletal asylum system and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan families have trekked north to the U.S. southern border in the past two years, many of them fleeing endemic violence and extreme poverty.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a lawsuit to try to block the administration from enforcing the agreement with Guatemala, as well as similar deals the United States forged with Honduras and El Salvador.
Something discussed much here on the Dispatch is that increasingly the targets of Trump’s immigration war are people seeking legal avenues for entry into the United States. Seeking asylum is legal. Refugee resettlement is legal. Seeking a visa for a family member is legal. What Trump has offered to grapple with unauthorized immigration is a wall, a zero tolerance policy of prosecuting everyone crossing between points of entry (leading to the child separation crisis of 2018), and expanded workplace raids that thus far do not prosecute the business owners. This second set of policies are in the realm of deterrence, and they don’t work very well – never have – in lowering migration. Attacking legal, authorized avenues for immigration, however, has proven effective… precisely because people are following the rules. So refugee resettlement has fallen from 110,000 to 18,000, asylum claims are being denied at a higher rate, and increasingly, not even allowed to be made. Getting a visa for a family member, harder than ever.
Legal immigration to the United States declined by 86,894, or 7.3%, between FY 2016 and FY 2018, according to an analysis of recently released Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data. The DHS data show a larger decline in legal immigration in FY 2018 if refugees who physically arrived in the United States more than a year earlier are excluded from comparisons between FY 2016 and FY 2018. Excluding refugees means 122,412 fewer legal immigrants became lawful permanent residents in FY 2018 than in FY 2016, a decline of 11.5%, based on a National Foundation for American Policy analysis.
A big part of the reason for this is in the area of family visa requests from U.S. Citizens:
Most of the decline can be traced to lower admissions in the Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens category, which includes the spouses, children and parents of Americans, the analysis concludes. Contributing to the lower numbers are processing delays and policy changes that could prevent an individual from obtaining permanent residence, such as a March 6, 2017, presidential directive on “heightened screening and vetting.” If allowed by the courts, administration policies requiring immigrants to possess health insurance and a “public charge” rule could significantly reduce future levels of legal immigration.
The health insurance requirement alone could block hundreds of thousands more immigrants from obtaining visas. The mandate requires “that new immigrants be denied entry to the United States unless they prove they can obtain eligible health insurance within 30 days of arrival or will have sufficient resources to pay for foreseeable medical costs.” The order, as we discussed when issued, is based on some serious logical missteps, essentially blaming uninsured immigrants for increasing insurance and other costs from unpaid emergency room visits. Which is basically, a lie. However, if implemented, it could block up to 65% of current applications for permanent residency.
Considering the impact of all of these policies, and their targets, e.g. not the elusive “criminal alien” but people seeking authorized avenues to migrate to the United States, it is worth mentioning again that Trump’s principal policy guru on immigration is a confirmed white nationalist, heavily invested in the “great replacement” theory, and all of the crappy policy ideas that come from it. Yes, Stephen Miller is still around – amazing in an administration that loses lead staff and department heads faster than they can be replaced.
This week more emails were delivered to/released by the Southern Poverty Law Center documenting the roots of Miller’s policy proposals in a theory of white replacement – the idea that white people are being replaced by immigrants from non-white countries (shit-hole countries in Trump-speak). This weeks trove of emails focus on Miller’s opposition to extending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA):
“Demanding DREAMers be given citizenship because they ‘know no other home.’ That principle is an endorsement of perpetual birthright citizenship for the foreign-born,” Miller wrote in the email, using a term to describe DACA recipients. “Not only will the U.S.-born children of future illegal immigrants and guest workers be made automatic U.S. citizens, but their foreign-born children will too because, as [former Republican House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor said, ‘Our country was founded on the principle.’”
Miller added in the same thread: “Jeb [Bush] has mastered the art of using immigration rhetoric to sound ‘moderate’ while pushing the most extremist policies.” In a follow-up email, Miller referred to Bush’s desire to use “immigration to replace existing demographics.”
That Miller’s policies have a racist impact is clear. I guess it helps to know that he really means it. In any event, no one in the GOP seems to care. Mostly, I’d guess, cuz they agree. At least they believe it makes “good” politics. We can only hope they are proven wrong.
On September 26, 2019, Trump issued an Executive Order (EO 13888) that requires state and local officials to provide written consent in order for refugee resettlement to continue in their states and localities. This means that refugee resettlement will stop in an entire state unless the governor sends a letter providing consent. County executives or their equivalents, depending on each state’s setup, must also provide consent in order for refugees to be resettled in their localities.
On January 8 a Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland heard arguments against the executive order. Two days later, Texas became the first state to opt out of the refugee resettlement program for FY2020. Forty-two states have agreed to continue accepting refugees. Only two counties had voted to opt out of refugee resettlement: Beltrami County in Minnesota (in which no refugee has been resettled in over five years) and Burleigh County in North Dakota (which voted to limit the number admitted but still accept some refugees- only 19 refugees were resettled in FY 2019). The debates have proved very contentious – which was clearly part of Trump’s intent.
Yesterday, the District Court in Greenbelt issued an injunction against the executive order. From the Associated Press:
A federal judge on Wednesday halted President Donald Trump’s executive order that gave state and local officials the ability to shut the door on refugees, and ignited a fierce debate in communities about how welcoming the United States should be.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Maryland said in his ruling that the president’s order “flies in the face of clear Congressional intent” of the 1980 Refugee Act by allowing state and local governments to block the resettlement of refugees in their jurisdictions.
In issuing a preliminary injunction, Messitte said the process should continue as it has for nearly 40 years, with refugee resettlement agencies deciding where a person would best thrive.
This is great news. However, while the legal process drags on, the uncertainty remains for the 1,800 refugees that are to be resettled in Texas – almost all with family in the state.
Meanwhile, the overall cap on refugees allowed into the United States continues to fall under Trump. This year the cap is just 18,000. It was 110,000 in 2016. Currently between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees are in the pipeline, seeking resettlement in the United States.
In a first, ICE subpoenas Denver police
In a bizarre development in the ongoing war between “sanctuary” cities and the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued subpoenas to the police in Denver to force release of information on four men that ICE is seeking to deport. According to Denver police, however, they’ve already given the information sought to ICE for three of the men in question and will provide release information on the fourth one when he is actually released from custody. From the Associated Press:
The four men, three Mexican nationals and one Honduran, had all been arrested and jailed for violent offenses such as sexual assault and child abuse and had all been previously deported, according to ICE.
“ICE officials contacted Denver to request jail release notifications involving four inmates,” Luby said. “Contrary to what ICE is saying, we honored three of those requests for the three inmates released at that time. We will honor the request for the fourth inmate when he is released.”
So what is going on? Denver has adopted policies that restrict police cooperation with ICE. In particular, the Denver police will not detain people for ICE. The ICE practice of requesting “detainers” is controversial. ICE requests that local police refuse to release people for up to 48 hours beyond their scheduled release date, so that ICE field offices can send someone to pick them up. Local and county law enforcement have begun to push back against the use of detainers, with many now refusing to keep people in custody for ICE, unless there is a warrant issued by a federal judge requiring it. Holding people so ICE can come and decide what to do with them is a violation of civil rights. Or so, Denver, among other cities, has argued. From the Associated Press:
The subpoenas were issued Monday. In three of the cases, officials have 14 days to respond with information, and in one case, three days. Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said the subpoenas requested additional information than what was already provided.
“The subpoenas were not issued by a court of law and not signed by a judge. There is no indication they are related to a criminal investigation,” he said. “Denver does not comply with subpoenas unless they are Court-ordered or unless they are primarily related to a criminal investigation. Our immigration ordinance fully complies with federal law.”
This was apparently the first time ICE has issued a subpoena against a law enforcement agency, but likely will not be the last. What ICE is actually expecting from Denver’s police is not clear. As noted, ICE received release notifications already. This seems an effort to reframe the optics of “law and order” in the administration’s favor, while attacking the credibility of sanctuary policies. It could prove to be much ado about nothing in the long run or, or signal a new tactic in the administration’s war on immigrants and the people who stand with them.
“But a punishment like forced labour or even imprisonment – mere loss of liberty – has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself: rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement … There remains, therefore, a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice – a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
At a converted prison in Jena, Lousianna, five men from India are engaged in a hunger strike. Two of the men have passed the 70 day mark and are being forcefully hydrated. The men came to the United States seeking asylum. They appeared at legal port of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum. All of this is perfectly legal, of course. But they were detained anyway. They all have family sponsors ready to receive them upon release. Nevertheless, they remain incarcerated in conditions they are protesting with their very lives. From Truthout:
Both men fear they will face violence if they are deported to India and asked volunteers to keep their names out of the press. One is 37 years old and the other is 22, and both filed asylum claims after crossing at a legal port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border before being shuffled through the nation’s vast immigration detention system.
Graffeo said the two men can no longer walk and are in wheelchairs. They could suffer organ damage or even death within a week, as many hunger strikers do not make it past 75 days.
“It’s a rapid decline at this point,” Graffeo said.
Three other men at the facility are also on strike but recently began drinking some fluids, and all five have been subjected to forced hydration over the past month after refusing to eat and drink, according to Freedom for Immigrants.
Rather than release asylum seekers on bond, the Trump administration is keeping as many as it can locked up. In Louisiana, this has meant an explosion in contracts to private companies, and local state and county jails. Overall the Trump administration has opened or signed agreements with 24 new facilities since taking office, adding 17,000 bed spaces for “civil” detention under Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. One result of this increase and the tactics employed is a dramatic increase in protests of conditions.
Hunger strikes have erupted at immigration jails nationwide as the Trump administration responded to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border with policies that prioritize incarceration, with many adults held indefinitely as they wait to see a judge. Last year, immigrant rights groups documented 14 hunger strikes at immigration jails across the country. Strikers typically protest poor conditions and medical treatment and demand their right to freedom and due process. Freedom for Immigrants has identified 1,600 hunger strikers in immigration jails since 2015.
Meanwhile, just across the border in Mississippi, five men who had been imprisoned were murdered over the last two weeks. From Mother Jones:
The recent violence began on December 29, when Terrandance Dobbins was killed in what the corrections department described vaguely as a “major disturbance” at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, and two other men there were injured. On New Year’s Eve, the lockdown began, and the department’s commissioner announced her resignation. During the first several days of the year, four more men were beaten or stabbed to death, including three at Parchman. For context, that’s almost the same number of people killed at Parchman during the eight years prior. “Things are kind of surreal at this point,” coroner Heather Burton told the Clarion Ledger of the recent deaths. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.”
Last year the Marshall Project undertook a study of Mississippi prisons, finding that the overcrowded, understaffed institutions, are the sites of enormous abuse. In a detailed study of one prison, operated under contract with the private company MTC, the warden managed the prison using gangs – and he claimed to auditors that this was common practice in the state. From the Marshall Project:
Bradley’s response to this problem, according to the audit: “he speaks with the gang lords/leaders and asks them to ‘control their men.’ If they do not control the individuals on the unit, the Warden will place the unit on lockdown,” which means prisoners are confined to their cells with no visits, no recreation, no meals in the cafeteria. Using gangs this way is just how Mississippi prisons operate, the warden said: “It ain’t right, but it’s the truth.” He told auditors that the head of the criminal investigations division at the Mississippi Department of Corrections, who was not named, had encouraged him to partner with gang leaders.
One result of the deaths, is an airing of the conditions in these prisons. Mississippi under went criminal justice reform, much as in neighboring Louisiana, in order to cut its prison budget. Though the incarceration rate initially declined following 2014 reforms, it has begun to go up again. However, the budget has not.
With fewer funds, Mississippi prisons are practically crumbling in disrepair. At Parchman, holes riddle the walls and prison doors, ceilings are collapsing, and roaches and rats run throughout the facility, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which reviewed Department of Health inspections. Many incarcerated people go about their days in the dark, since hundreds of cells now lack lights or power—a sharp decline in conditions compared with seven years ago, when all cells had electricity and lighting. Today, one building had just one shower for more than 50 prisoners, who described going weeks sometimes without a chance to wash, according to the investigation.
In addition to state budget cuts, Federal oversight of the prison ended in 2011, and conditions have fallen off dramatically since.
From Propublica’s report,“The prison’s drinking water has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act dozens of times, and the Environmental Protection Agency has cited the prison’s sewage system for three years for violating the Clean Water Act, documents show. Parchman’s accreditation by the American Correctional Association, which sets standards for prisons across the country, lapsed in 2017.”
Propublica also notes that in 2012, one year after federal oversight ended, an inspection found one prisoner without a mattress and twelve toilets inoperable. This year, 250 prisoners had no mattress and 68 toilets were in disrepair. The utter collapse of these conditions lies at the root of the violence. The fact that as a society we treat inmates as thrown away people, undeserving of the most basic human dignity is why these conditions are politically acceptable. It has also set the stage for the conditions in immigrant detention, where 75% of the people detained are in facilities run by prison companies, and most of the rest are in jails and state run prisons.
Of course, the poor conditions faced by immigrants in detention have been well documented and roundly criticized by pundits, candidates, and members of Congress. However, not much has been done in the policy realm to reform the system. Indeed, Trump continues to basically make conditions worse since Congress can’t find the will to stop him. As awareness of these conditions grow, we can only hope that it is accompanied by an awareness of the roots of these conditions.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world – both in absolute terms and adjusted for population. The conditions in U.S. prisons parallel conditions in immigrant detention: poor health care, limited access (to mostly privatized) mental health services, overuse of solitary confinement, abuse at the hands of guards and others who are incarcerated. Confinement, whether criminal incarceration or civil detention, employs a core set of techniques meant to dehumanize and control. We seem to know no other way. This week grueling evidence of the conditions in U.S. prisons appeared briefly above the ramparts of our collective indifference. We need to keep that awareness alive and demand change.
The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, announced on Friday that Texas would not participate in refugee resettlement during the 2020 fiscal year. In doing so, Abbott made Texas the first (and thus only state) to refuse to resettle refugees. Abbott’s argument was basically that Texas has done its fair share and now it’s time for other states to step up. From the Hill,
Abbott noted in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Texas has accepted more refugees than any other state since fiscal year 2010 on top of grappling with “disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.”
“At this time, the state and nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless — indeed, all Texans,” Abbott wrote.
“As a result, Texas cannot consent to initial refugee resettlement for FY2020.”
Abbot clarified that the policy does not preclude any refugee from later coming to Texas after initially settling in another state.
“Texas has carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process and appreciates that other states are available to help with these efforts,” he wrote.
By Texas, Abbott mostly means Houston, which in recent years has taken more refugees than any other city in the country. From the Houston Chronicle in 2017:
Though all 50 states have accepted some refugees, Texas typically takes about 10.5 percent of the national total, according to U.S. State Department numbers. More of them come to the Houston area than to anywhere else in Texas. In fiscal year 2014, the state health services department reported, nearly 30 percent of Texas’ refugees landed in Harris County.
Taken together, this data means that Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.
And the thing is, if Houston were a country – it would still be accepting refugees, because Abbott doesn’t speak for the city at all. As is often the case with immigration policy, the people who most strongly oppose immigration live in areas that are the least affected by it. And Abbott, like reactionaries all over the country, speak for them. They speak to the fear of the unknown that is the milieu in which Trump and his ilk weave their narratives of hate.
Because Houston has received many refugees over the years, there is an infrastructure in place to assist with resettlement. This infrastructure has been weakened nationally, as the number of refugees resettled has continued to fall under Trump – this year only 18,000 refugees are to be resettled. However, there are few other places in the country as equipped to handle resettlement, and while I would never claim to speak for all of Houston, certainly most of us here see refugees as more of a benefit to the city than a burden.
So why now? Well Donald Trump issued an executive order in September that required states and localities to affirmatively opt-in to refugee resettlement programs by January 21. Over thirty states have opted in, Texas just became the only one to opt out – though it will likely not be the last. Even if a state opts in, local governments can opt out. But, as of last week, only two counties have done so; one in North Dakota and the other in Minnesota.
Trump’s executive order is being challenged in federal court. As we discussed last week, there was a vigil and demonstration at the District Court in Greenbelt, MD January 8 which was hearing the case. Short of an injunction in the next week or so, however, the policy will get enacted, even if it is ultimately overturned. Certainly in Texas a conversation about opting back into the program will become much harder than Abbott’s unilateral decision to opt out.
Creating these polarizing conversations is the point, of course. To be a refugee or other immigrant during an election year in this country is tough, because at that point you have become a symbol, not a person. Trump has created this divide. He has done so by attacking authorized routes to immigration. He has done nothing at all to address unauthorized migration other than to make it more likely by shutting down every legal path possible. This is politics in the age of spectacle: image over substance, appearance over reality.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking to extend three new 10-year contracts for immigrant detention facilities in Texas. Based on a review of the Request for Proposals the three sites are the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, and the Houston Processing Center in Houston. The solicitations raise a number of questions. The first whether they are truly open bids – or if they are simply prima facie requests with the current holders of the contracts for these facilities basically locked in. The Quixote Center signed onto a letter in December coordinated by Grassroots Leadership in Texas demanding answers. The letter notes: “In some cases, ICE feigns competition by creating solicitations with requests so specific to its desired target(s) that no other interested party can meaningfully compete. This makes a sham of the federal procurement process. Understanding this pattern allowed us to identify the specific facilities the pre-solicitation notice was directed toward.”
Second, as also noted in the letter, there is the concern about the facilities themselves. In the case of T Don Hutto, Williamson County has already severed its ties with the facility in a bid to get it closed following repeated reports of sexual abuse. In response to the county vote, ICE simply extended a bridge contract directly with CoreCivic to keep the facility open until a new, long-term, contract could be negotiated. A ten year deal that side steps the county’s decision would be a real slap in the face to the community, not to mention a serious end-around local control and democratic practice.
Houston Processing Center is also operated by CoreCivic and holds the distinction of being the first private prison in the country. It was opened in 1984 by the Corrections Corporation of America (which became CoreCivic). This means the same company has had the contract for 35 years now, even though this facility has recorded among the highest numbers of deaths in custody since 2003.
South Texas Detention Complex, operated by the GEO Group, has its own track record of abuse, being among the “leaders” in the use of solitary confinement, which is a fundamental abuse of human rights. Of course, let’s face it, all of these examples are endemic in the system itself, which is dominated by private contractors (half of the people in ICE detention are either in a GeoGroup or CoreCivic facility).
Which raises a third question: Why is ICE using tax-payer resources to bail out private prison companies that have demonstrably bad track records? In the latest expose of the private prison industry, USA Today is publishing a series of reports on immigrant detention. The second report in the series details how the private prison industry has expanded under Trump, and the kinds of influence the industry attempts to gain through political contributions and lobbying. Since Trump took office, 24 facilities and 17,000 bed spaces have been added to ICE’s detention infrastructure. From USA Today:
The booming business spends $3 billion a year housing a record high of roughly 50,000 people, the majority of whom have no criminal record. The [USAToday] investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.
So, the conditions in the Texas facilities are, sadly, par for the course. In response to these conditions, and the growing awareness of them as Trump has expanded detention capacity, communities around the country have been pushing back. Some achievements include a recently passed ban on new contracts with private prisons to detain immigrants in California, restrictions against new contracts in Illinois, a series of local efforts, like the one in Williamson County, to cut Intergovernmental Service Agreements between ICE and counties, and significant push back against cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE, including denying ICE access to local jails for detention purposes. The movement has also led banks to cut off lending to private prison companies.
A significant impact of this movement is that ending (or restricting) contracts with private prison companies for immigrant detention is now a common position among Democrats running for president – Warren has staked out the clearest position of those remaining in the race. Such bans have also been featured in legislation, albeit bills not likely to move far in this Congress. Obama had already sought to end private contracting – a position which led private prison industry folks to embrace Trump’s campaign and donate a lot of money to it, including $250,000 from both CoreCivic and GeoGroup to Trump inaugural committee. It seemed to pay off. Trump’s administration overturned Obama’s executive order limiting new contracts with private prison companies within a month of taking office.
So, the companies ICE contracts with are facing significant local, state, and potentially national backlash over conditions in facilities. And Trump won’t be president forever. Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, was interviewed for the USA Today report, and said “This is their moment. They’re thinking, ‘We don’t know how long Trump is going to be in office, so let’s get all the money to him and to Republicans and solidify ourselves.’ ” The industry donated $38,000 to Obama’s election funds over his entire 8 years in office. They have already donated $969,000 to Trump in 3 years.
One result: ICE has their back. We saw this recently in California, where the new ban on contracts went into effect January 1, 2020. During the last two weeks of December 2019 ICE extended 5 new contracts for detention to private companies in the state, expanding, not reducing the footprint of private prison companies in the state. Not satisfied with the last minute save from the Trump administration, GeoGroup is now suing California to get the law overturned.
Which brings us back to Texas. The state government is still under the control of the GOP, and is not likely to pass anything like the bans in California or Illinois anytime soon. But it is also where the largest number of people are detained. So companies have every incentive to lock in contracts for as long as possible. There is also a widespread ecosystem of support for immigrants in the state. One that has grown up over many years. So, while the state government may not take action, counties have, e.g. Williamson County severed the contract with T. Don Hutto.
What can localities do to stop ICE from extending contracts? There are limited options, but one thing you can do is let your member of Congress know that you do not support the Trump administration locking in your community as a host for immigrant detention for the next ten years. Congress could block these contracts, or minimally demand that regular procurement rules are followed. The administration has no plan to pay for any of this – they are already over budget for detention. So, even fiscal conservatives should be angry.
Detention, as we say over and over, is also unnecessary. Community release is sufficient oversight for immigrants awaiting removal proceedings – which are the only reason people are in ICE detention to begin with. People show up for their court case – 98.7% of asylum seekers showed up to every court hearing last year. 98.7%. It is time to end this inhumane practice.
The primary justification for detaining people who are seeking asylum in the United States is the dubious argument that, if released, they will simply disappear into the population and never show up for court cases. Trump has claimed this many times, in one speech claiming that only 3% of people released show up for court. This, like so many other Trump statements on immigration, is completely false.
In 2019, 98.7% of the people seeking asylum went to EVERY court date. This, despite the fact that denial rates are increasing (see more on trends below). Most of the people who are clearing cases this year started the process in 2015 or 2016. Of these 80% were not detained, or detained and released early in the process. In other words, detention had no bearing on their attendance in court. So detention is demonstrably proven to be a complete waste of resources. This is one reason why ICE’s own operational guidelines dictate that people be released from detention once they have established a credible fear of torture or persecution, a first step in seeking asylum (a guideline they are currently violating).
Detention, as practiced in the United States, has also been shown to be cruel and degrading, comparable to torture. People are denied access to sufficient health services, mental health support, and in their vulnerability, often become victims of abuse. People die in immigrant detention. Three people in ICE custody and at least four in Customs and Border Protection custody since October 1, 2019. Detention is not supposed to be criminal punishment. It is intended as an administrative hold. Yet, as report after report shows, the conditions are prison like – and usually takes place in actual prisons. 75% of the people in detention are held in facilities that operate under contracts with private companies – all of which are private prison companies. Prisons are what they know – and how they treat people.
The Trump administration has increased the use of detention in this country – reaching over 50,000 people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention on average each day in FY 2019. A near 40% increase over detention rates when he took office. He was not authorized to hold that many people. He went over budget. And then, he simply transferred money from other accounts without congressional authorization to cover the shortfall.
As of January 4, 2020 there were 41,631 people being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Of these, 9,884 people have established a credible fear of torture and/or persecution if returned home. They are still being held.
TRAC Report on Asylum number/trends
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) issued a report yesterday on asylum court procedures that offers a look into recent trends. A few important takeaways:
The number of asylum cases heard has increased pretty significantly over the last five years, with last year totaling 67,406 cases heard, well over twice the number in 2014.
The average length of time people wait for a determination of their asylum case is 1,030 days, or close to three years. However, one-fourth waited nearly 4 years 1,421 days.
The rate of denials has skyrocketed under Trump. The current denial rate is 70% overall. Of people who have no representation, 16% are granted asylum. Of those who have representation, 33% are granted asylum or other relief. There is an increase this year in the percentage of cases where asylum seekers have representation, a tend that TRAC credits to efforts to mobilize pro bono representation around the country. However, overall denial rates continue to increase.
Part of the reason, is expedited processes. Almost half of the cases decided where the people were not represented by an attorney were completed within a year and almost all of those were denied.
Over the last year the Trump administration has begun to dismantle access to asylum procedures. For example, not included in this report, but discussed elsewhere, the denial rate of those placed in the Migrant Protection Protocol (“Remain in Mexico”) is extraordinarily high, with only 117 people granted asylum out of the first 24,000 cases heard.
The administration’s current Transit Ban denies people the ability to even apply for asylum if they have crossed a third country prior to arrival at the border, unless they have applied for asylum and been denied in that third country. As we’ve noted this means that only people from Mexico can apply for asylum at the U.S./Mexico border. [Worth noting here that the Trump administration has begun discussions about sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala under its Orwellian “safe third country” agreement!].