When it comes to President Trump’s attacks on migrants, his administration’s latest policies prove that there are no limits. What started with a Trump Tower claim in June 2015 that Mexican rapists were streaming across the border has morphed into a wholesale attack on people fleeing for their lives. At every step, the administration has turned to imprisonment as its favored means of punishing migrants who are already here and convincing others to stay away.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement already holds more people in its facilities than ever before. Its cousin agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, routinely clams to be overcapacity. Widely shared photographs of families caged under overpasses make those claims more than credible.
Trump officials repeatedly say that they need more detention beds, but the most recent round of immigration policies promises to throw more people into the nation’s overflowing immigration prison system. Last week, the Trump administration announced that it would expand a fast-track deportation procedure long in place along the border but limited to people with less than fourteen days in the country, to the nation’s interior. Through this watered-down legal process, officially called expedited removal, migrants are funneled through the immigration system without ever stepping foot inside a courtroom. In the cold tone of bureaucratic regulations, “such alien is not entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge.” Instead of a neutral third party, front-line law enforcement officers from DHS decide who to detain and deport.
Unless halted by a court, the Trump administration plans to extend expedited removal to the entire country. And instead of targeting people who have been here two weeks, it will apply to anyone who can’t show an immigration officer that they have at least two years living in the United States. If the past is any indication, almost all will be people of color. From 2011 to 2013, ICE reported the citizenship of people subjected to expedited removal. During that span, the percentage from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador never dipped below 96 percent. A repeat performance would surely please the president and his supporters.
All of these people will be taken into ICE’s bloated immigration prison system. There they are likely to remain until they are forcibly removed from the United States. In the 1996 law creating the expedited removal procedure, Congress declared that detention was required. There was a narrow exception for asylum seekers. Under a Bush-era legal decision, migrants who successfully navigated the beginning stages of the asylum process could ask a judge for release. They were never guaranteed to get out, but they could at least plead their case for escape from this detention and removal vortex.
Under Trump, it’s easier to get detained and harder to get out. His administration has shown a remarkable willingness to lock up asylum applicants, claiming that they are more likely to be scamming the United States than making a last-ditch plea for survival. In April, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, ordered immigration judges to stop releasing migrants even if they have a credible fear of being persecuted in their home countries. The Bush-era decision, Attorney General Barr wrote, “was wrongly decided.” A federal court has temporarily blocked Barr’s order from fully going into effect, requiring immigration officials to allow migrants to ask for release. The Trump administration is appealing, claiming “No single district judge has legitimate authority to impose his or her open borders views on the country.”
As Trump officials fight migrants’ attempts to get out of immigration prisons, the human toll of incarceration rises. Steel doors clank behind visitors and inmates wear color-coded uniforms: red for high-risk detainees, blue for low-risk, and orange for everyone in the middle. Sometimes the colors change, but the risk calculation is always the same. No matter why they are there, in the eyes of prison officials, imprisoned migrants are always a risk.
Inside the hundreds of facilities that ICE relies on to detain migrants, the agency’s own standards are regularly flouted and inmates are pressured into a “voluntary” work program that pays $1 per day. Trauma is routine and death not uncommon, as Kamyar Samimi learned. After 40 years in the United States, the green-card holder, a recovering addict without other health problems, died in an ICE prison only two weeks after ICE arrested him at home. In a press release shortly after his December 2017 death, ICE said he “fell ill.” The mystery of his illness was lifted seventeen months later when the government released an internal review. Medical staff at the Denver-area prison in which Samimi was detained didn’t just deny him his usual addiction recovery medicine; nurses ignored a doctor’s orders and the prison’s only physician failed to visit him even after his health spiraled downward.
Advocates are likely to go to court soon to stop Trump’s plan to expand fast-track deportations. When they do, it will be up to courts to decide whether the latest twist in the government’s prolonged campaign to lock up and deport more migrants will be allowed to proceed. If it does, the inevitable end will be more suffering.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on July 30, 2019 with the headline “Locked Up Migrants and Fast-Track Deportations: This is What Trump Wants.”