The United States has a long and inglorious history of coercive state practices of social control that are motivated, explicitly or implicitly, by race. From chattel slavery to modern incarceration, state actors have regularly marginalized, demonized, and exploited people racialized as nonwhite. No instance is more salient and horrific than the centuries of chattel slavery upon which much of this nation’s wealth is built.
Immigration imprisonment—the practice of confining people because of a suspected or confirmed immigration law violation—fits neatly into this ignoble tradition. The United States’ half million immigration prisoners, overwhelmingly Latinos, were almost all pushed and pulled to leave their countries of origin in part by policies promoted or supported by the United States. Yet, once here, Latin American migrants are relegated to a legal system that treats them as confineable based merely on their status. In turn, status is ascribed onto migrants’ bodies as if it inheres in their very bones. Seldom is it linked to political and economic machinations that have created generations of transnational communities.
Worse, as designed and operated, the practice of immigration imprisonment has stripped confined migrants of their inherent dignity as humans and instead commodified them as sources of revenue. Adults subject to mandatory detention requirements are frequently confined without any thought to whether there is a defensible basis. Parents trapped with their children are stripped of most features of parental care and authority. All immigration prisoners are regularly abused physically and emotionally.
For them, the prison operates as a means of segregation and stigmatization: They are segregated from the political community and perceived to be dangerous. For other migrants who, for the time being at least, avoid imprisonment, the prison symbolizes the state’s brute power. But for the vast network of interested parties who have invested deeply in immigration imprisonment, the prison marks the location of production. Paid according to the number of people locked up, private prisons and local governments profit from human bondage. Opportunistic politicians, meanwhile, reap political rewards for pointing to barbed wire perimeters and sizeable prison populations as evidence of their efforts to protect the nation.
In October, I will be discussing the moral indefensibility of the United States’ immigration prison practice, and proposing that advocates move toward calling for its wholesale abolition. Not simply a reduction in the scale of prisoners held by the U.S. Marshals Service, Bureau of Prisons, or ICE. Not simply reforms to the conditions of confinement. Not merely a retreat from the insanity of locking up infants and toddlers. But a dramatic departure from the enforcement regime we have come to know as politically palatable over the last three decades.
On Thursday, October 6, I will join Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., at a free event (RSVP required). Two weeks later, on Thursday, October 14, I will deliver the Ruth Chance Lecture at Berkeley Law School as part of my week there as a scholar-in-residence with the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice (RSVP suggested). My remarks at both events are described in detail in a forthcoming article in the Boston University Law Review (the abstract of which forms the basis for this article).
I hope to see crimmigration.com readers in D.C. and Berkeley.