After arriving in the United States in October 2015 with his mother Wendy hoping to find safe harbor, one-year-old Diego was quickly moved to an immigration prison in Pennsylvania. Six hundred fifty days later, Diego and Wendy were still there. “Diego’s situation is alarming, but it’s not unique,” I wrote in Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants.
Less than two months from Inauguration Day, change is in the air. Just as winter’s bareness recently overtook fall’s bright colors, Biden’s calm humanity will soon replace Trump’s selfish abrasiveness. One year after Migrating to Prison was published, in this moment of presidential transition what matters most is the ordinariness of Diego’s story. He and his mother were not the only family imprisoned by U.S. immigration officials. In the summer of 2019, ICE was holding about 450 migrants across its three immigration prisons for families, including the Berks County, Pennsylvania facility where Diego and Wendy were confined. At the height of the administration’s family-separation policy, ICE’s family prisons held almost 2500 people.
This is Trump-era cruelty, to be sure. But as I wrote about Diego, just because something is alarming doesn’t mean it’s new. In October 2016, months before Trump stepped into the White House and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, occupied the top post at the Justice Department, ICE held about 2400 people in its family immigration prisons. Cruelty is measured best by its blind embrace of punishment, disregarding punishment’s impact and overstating the accused’s transgression. Through that lens, the cruelty of U.S. immigration policies certainly increased during the Trump years, but it did not begin there. Indeed, the last fifteen months of the Obama administration were the first fifteen months of Diego and Wendy’s imprisonment. The Obama years, when President-elect Biden was vice president, epitomize the obsession with imprisoning migrants that I describe in Migrating to Prison.
A return to the calm humanity of a thoughtful presidency is no guarantee that the cruelty of hard-edged immigration policies nears its end. Whether there’s a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, “the immigration prison archipelago continues to thrive. It appears to be on autopilot,” I wrote. The barbed wire and steel doors that characterize many of the nation’s immigration prisons won’t disappear in late January. Early announcements about key policy staff for the new administration suggest a return to the days when people like Diego and Wendy were escorted into prison. The Biden-Harris campaign’s promise to stop using private prison companies might easily be forgotten in the rush to remedy the Trump administration’s deadly response to the Covid-19 pandemic or to reverse the many Trump era immigration excesses, from numerous travel bans to all but closing the country to refugees.
One year after Migrating to Prison’s release, “it’s past time to push back against the decades-old bipartisan politics of fear with a politics of creative, impassioned courage: courage to discard what we in the United States do for what we should do.” The activists who pushed the Obama administration to create DACA and organized Arizona to tilt in Biden’s favor are surely ready. What’s less clear to me is whether they will be joined by the throngs who were moved to outrage by the unique callousness of the Trump nightmare.
Abandoned by the millions who will release an enormous sigh of relief when the moving trucks leave the White House on January 20 filled with the Trump family’s personal belongings, activists are unlikely to be able to remove cruelty from the core of U.S. immigration policy. The immigration prison is a symptom of immigration policy’s embrace of a myopic, atomized view of migrants. They are expected to be the exceptional people who we, the U.S. citizens whom immigration law privileges, imagine ourselves to be: excel at school, avoid poverty, don’t commit crime. But if there is any message I hope Migrating to Prison flashes brightly across every page it’s this: “We need to stop demanding that migrants be exceptional and instead embrace their ordinariness.” Perhaps then can we collectively imagine a world in which the ordinary act of moving from one place to another no longer serves as the impetus for incarceration.
As we count the days to the end of the Trump nightmare, I look forward to repeating this basic message over and over again.