Immigration imprisonment is seemingly intractable. The United States Marshals Service imprisons almost 100,000 people suspected of a federal immigration crime. The Bureau of Prisons holds roughly 25,000 convicted federal immigration offenders on a given day. And of course, ICE uses the $2 billion it receives for civil immigration detention to hold approximately 400,000 people waiting to learn whether they will be allowed to remain. Meanwhile, private prison corporations, county governments, and countless financial investors are attuned to the profits that come with locking up migrants. The dominant political narrative suggests that an immigration law enforcement regime that lacks imprisonment as a central tool is a failure.
Over the last eight years, the Obama Administration has wholly embraced immigration imprisonment. Advocates have struggled mightily to rein in the Administration’s efforts. Creative lawyers have challenged everything from who is confined (infants, toddlers, mothers, families, single men, the mentally ill) to how they can be treated (trying to force ICE to adopt common sense policies like prohibiting sexual assault). Meaningful successes have been met by significant failures. As did its predecessor, at almost every turn, the Obama Administration has put up obstacle after obstacle. President-elect Trump seems intent to throw that wholesale embrace of confinement into overdrive. Whatever shaming that was possible with the Obama Administration is likely gone with a Trump Administration led by a man who appears incapable of being shamed.
For anyone interested in destroying the literal chains that control the lives of about half a million migrants every year, it’s a hard time to be positive. It’s hard to imagine a world in which the coercive power of the prison isn’t a fact of life. It’s difficult to believe that something radically different is possible.
The same could have been said of the Italian asylums for the mentally ill in the middle of the twentieth centuries. They were common, they were isolated, they were horrendous. As John Foot writes in his excellent history of the abolition of Italian mental asylums, The Man Who Closed The Asylums (2015), the “manicomio (madhouse) was a dark and sinister institution, a dumping ground for the poor and the ‘deviant,’ a place of exclusion.” There were cages, patients tied to their beds, trees, or benches, everything was locked, “and the vast majority of those inside were contained against their will” (6).
And then they were gone. Over many years, the asylum’s place in Italian society collapsed, their gates were literally torn down, and the people confined were released. It’s not that Italians decided that there was no mental illness. They simply decided, as Franca Ongaro Basaglia, a key figure in the abolitionist movement wrote, “that in Italy the response to mental distress should no longer be that of internment and segregation” (371).
Ending the asylum’s place in Italian society did not happen magically. There was no waive of a wand. Instead, there was politics, vision, framing, organizing, mass mobilization, coalition-building, experimentation, and, yes, there was failure. In one particularly gruesome instance, a man who had been granted permission to visit his family a few times without incident got into an argument with his wife and allegedly took a hammer to her head leaving her dead (204-05). Unsympathetic journalists and local politicians quickly unleashed a flurry of criticisms of the radical experiment launched at the asylum in the Italian border town of Gorizia. They wanted an end to the practice of releasing confined mentally ill people. They demanded a return to the confine-and-forget practices of the past where “inside asylums, patients effectively became ‘non-persons’” (20). And they wanted someone to be held accountable. As the local newspaper asked in the days that followed the tragedy, “who is to blame” (207)?
Yet the experiment in radical democracy continued. In 1978, the Italian Parliament enacted a law that ended, to this day, construction of new asylums (374) and aligned patients’ rights with the national constitution (379). Eventually, the 100,000 or so people who had lived inside the walls were absorbed into the communities on the outside (395).
For all the differences between the Italian mental health asylums of a past generation and the immigration prisons that pepper the United States today, the two institutions share important commonalities. They are both sites of forced confinement, locations where the state exercises its vast power to deny people liberty in the name of safety. Their locked gates make visible preexisting exclusions from society; the people inside weren’t first marginalized on the day they walked in the gate. Once inside, their lives become hidden from the outside, their presence held up in the abstract only as symbols of the state’s diligence securing the greater good. They cease to be people with an inherent dignity first They are instead valued primarily for their utility as exhibits of the state’s protective capacity.
Italy’s abolition of mental health asylums is both inspiring and instructive to advocates of a democratic immigration law regime in the United States. If the early believers in an Italy without asylums had limited themselves to what was feasible in the political moment in which they found themselves, they might have been able to tinker around the edges making confinement more palatable. But they would never have set their sights on a radical transformation of mental health care centered on the innate human dignity of the mentally ill. Instead, reform untethered to abolition was unacceptable. As Foot writes, “They had no real interest (in the long run) in transforming the asylum itself. The asylum was part of the past. The quicker it was left behind, the better” (242).
Rather than confine themselves to the politics of feasibility, abolitionists immersed themselves in a long-term process to change the politics of the moment. They altered the dominant frame through which the people confined were described: shifting from a rhetoric of fear to a rhetoric of membership in the community. The medical personnel involved in the beginning built alliances with artists and politicians to gradually expand the pool of sympathetic ears.
And they took risks. They tried to avoid the worst, but prepared for the certainty that one day the worst would come to pass. When that occurred, they could—and did—withstand the criticism. The democratic spirit of human rights—“This was a struggle for liberation, for democracy and for equality” (392)—won. There was dissension, strife, and setbacks, but animated by a politics anchored in a vision of “inmates inside the asylums as people” (392) with an inherent dignity that could not rightfully be stripped, the movement was able to negate the asylum: expose its violence and render it irrelevant.
This was a radical transformation of Italian society, but far less radical than shutting down the United States’ immigration prisons where almost everyone inside could easily become part of the outside society without any alterations. No special accommodations would be necessary. Indeed, many would simply return home. In that there is hope.