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The Movement to Defund and Abolish Immigration Jails Is Winning Major Victories

Biden’s budget calls for a 26 percent reduction in immigration detention, and ICE is reducing the use of some jails.

Jhowell, 11, from Honduras, reunites with his mother Ivania at an airport arrivals area after more than a month of detention in a Texas Health and Human Services shelter, at La Guardia Airport in New York on April 26, 2021.

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Last month, the national movement to end immigration detention achieved two major campaign victories that invite our attention and signal opportunities ahead. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will no longer incarcerate immigrants at the Etowah County Jail in Alabama and will reduce the use of three other jails in the south.

A couple days later, President Joe Biden released his 2023 budget request to Congress, which calls for a reduction in the capacity of immigration jails by 9,000 beds or 26 percent of the current funded level (34,000 beds). This was the first time in the history of the modern immigrant incarceration system that a president reduced the request to this degree.

For 40 years, the trajectory of immigration jails in the United States has been expansion: more beds, more money. President Biden’s budget request signals that we’ve finally moved the needle in the opposite direction, as a result of years of popular organizing and advocacy by people in detention and communities across the country. It can feel hard to celebrate given the continued harsh realities of immigration enforcement, but we can’t lose sight of our ability to score significant wins like these.

The oppositional narrative to immigration jails often focuses on the harms of detention: the abysmal conditions, the isolation, the harsh treatment. But we must call for the abolition of immigration jails not only because they are an inhumane extension of the larger system of mass incarceration but because they are also key drivers of deportations.

Prior to the pandemic, some 400,000 people were held in U.S. immigration jails annually, some for months or years. Detention bed capacity helps dictate how many people ICE chooses to detain and for how long. This subsequently impacts whether or not people end up targeted for deportation. The drive to expand detention under previous administrations was often in response to increasing deportation programs. Because the system exists to facilitate deportation, cutting its capacity is key to disrupting the immigrant dragnet.

Bed numbers for immigrant incarceration have been a major point of contention in budget negotiations for more than a decade. In 2009, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, incorporated language into the 2010 budget that required ICE maintain a certain number of jail beds, creating what came to be known as the detention bed quota. After activists and advocates targeted the quota, Congress eventually removed the language during Donald Trump’s administration. However, ICE employed another strategy to expand the immigration jail system by repeatedly overspending its budget and having Congress bail it out, thus increasing capacity each year. Through this strategy, ICE expanded civil immigrant incarceration to its height of 55,000 beds in 2019.

In 2017, a broad set of organizations came together to form the Defund Hate coalition to oppose Trump’s supplemental funding request for the border wall, more ICE and Border Patrol agents, and more detention beds. Through consistent engagement with members of Congress and public exposure of ICE’s underhanded tactics, the coalition popularized the call to defund ICE’s immigration jails. In one notorious example, ICE diverted money for detention beds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency during hurricane season, even as another hurricane was heading to the East Coast.

Since its inception, the coalition has successfully blocked $12 billion in additional funding to DHS. Without the call to defund ICE launched in 2017, we likely wouldn’t be seeing this reduction in immigration jail capacity in the president’s budget request in 2022.

In addition to seeking to defund ICE, calling for closure of specific “detention centers” has been a central strategy of the movement to end immigration jails. Over the last year, organizers and advocates across the country have successfully ended ICE detention at almost a dozen county jails through local-, state- and federal-level campaigns. In this regard, the end of ICE detention at the Etowah County Jail is a significant victory. For 24 years, Etowah has been one of the worst immigrant jails in the U.S., coming to symbolize everything wrong with the system.

Most people in Etowah are transferred from other states and are awaiting appeal on their case. With no outdoor recreation, immigrants would spend months or years in the jail without ever stepping foot outside. The conditions at Etowah were so poor that Barack Obama’s administration tried to stop using it in 2011, but Republican lawmakers from Alabama intervened by threatening to reduce ICE’s budget if the federal government ended the contract. For years, organizers, lawyers, advocates and journalists, alongside those detained, exposed the horrific conditions, filed lawsuits and protested. In 2015, the Shut Down Etowah campaign was launched to end the contract and support those inside. The campaign joined others nationally calling for Communities Not Cages to end contracts at ICE’s existing immigration jails and stop any further expansion.

Many advocates have questioned the call to shut down immigration jails as a strategy for dismantling the system, arguing that if a detention center shuts down in one location, another will simply be built somewhere else. This is why the combination of the calls to shut down facilities and defund ICE is so critical. It’s not just about ending one contract or a series of contracts. Winning local campaigns helps us make the case for ending immigrant incarceration altogether. These campaigns are connected to community and real people whose lives have been upended by the system and help reveal how unnecessary detention is. The call to defund subsequently ensures that we shrink the “detention system” and don’t just keep playing a game of whack-a-mole.

When Biden’s budget request reducing immigration jail capacity was announced, advocates rightly pointed with alarm to the increase in funding for programs (like ankle shackling and other forms of electronic monitoring) that have only widened the net for immigrants under government surveillance. And yet, we must continue to claim victory if immigration jail numbers go down, because for years, both detention and e-carceration models have only increased. This year would have been no different but for the movement to end immigration detention.

The proposed expansion in e-carceration reveals why we must remain steadfast in our call for abolition rather than accede to reforms that further entrench carceral approaches to immigration. Defunding ICE is not only an important strategy to reduce the incarceration of immigrants but also a critical strategy to limit the electronic monitoring of immigrants in deportation proceedings. It remains to be seen if Congress will pass a budget with these lower detention numbers, but calling for an end to both detention and e-carceration is paramount.

The recent backlash to abolition and the call to defund assumes that the demands are too extreme and are hurting the Democrats’ approval ratings. But the demands work — we are shrinking the number of immigration jails. While there are many factors at play that led to this outcome, including exposure under Trump and pandemic border closures leading to lower numbers, it’s clear that the demands for defunding and abolition in the broader discourse on policing and prisons and by the movement to end immigration detention got us here.

We have successfully made the case that immigrant incarceration should not be expanded and in fact must shrink. This is the time to remain bold and defend our wins. The status quo on immigration detention has shifted, and we need to make this a first step on the road to abolition.

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