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Time to Stop Criminalizing Immigrants

Last week US authorities began to place ankle bracelets on a few newly arrived immigrants. This represents a continuation of the criminalization and punishment of immigrants. The root causes of this refugee crisis remain unaddressed.

Last week US authorities began to place ankle bracelets on a few newly arrived immigrants. This represents a continuation of the criminalization and punishment of immigrants. The root causes of this refugee crisis remain unaddressed.

While Congress remains gridlocked over immigration, a small window of a “solution” has opened: electronic monitoring. On July 29, The New York Times reported the case of Carmen Garcia. Originally from El Salvador, she and her 12-year-old son arrived at the Texas border recently. After a single night in detention, the Border Patrol released them to reunite with another son in New York. When Garcia reported to New York immigration authorities, they fitted her with an ankle bracelet to track her movements until a final resolution of her case.

In a climate of extremes that has gone as far as a Ku Klux Klan call for a “shoot to kill” immigration policy and “corpses laying on the border,” an ankle bracelet seems a gentle and inexpensive alternative. However, Garcia captured the essence of this policy: criminalization of the immigrant population. “I asked [the authorities], ‘Why are you putting this on?'” Garcia told a Times reporter. “We’re not assassins. We’re not thieves. We’ve come to save our lives.”

The monitor drills to the heart of a moral choice that has plagued the United States’ approach to criminal justice for three plus decades: punish people or treat them with respect and give them a chance to succeed.

“Make Them Productive Members of the Community”

Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights Project at the Women’s Refugee Commission, has worked on this issue for years. While she condemns family detention as both inhumane and excessively expensive, she contends that there are cheaper, less punitive methods than ankle bracelets to ensure people show up for immigration hearings. Requiring them to answer a robo-call at a given time and place is one example. But Brané told Truthout the preferred solution entails support for community-based programs, not intense supervision or technological tracking. She says the best way to get people to comply with immigration requirements is to “make them productive members of the community. [We have] seen this around the world.” Brané suggested that existing programs, especially faith-based initiatives, could go to scale with some of the funding currently targeted at border security and intense supervision.

The use of monitors, as well as detention, has a further troubling side: profiteering. The major players in immigration detention are the private prison operators, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group. They own and operate about 40 percent of the immigration detention beds in the United States. Any expansion of formal detention will add money to their shareholders’ portfolios. But GEO also owns BI Incorporated, the largest provider of electronic monitoring in the United States. BI has about 70,000 people on ankle bracelets, including 7,000 awaiting the resolution of immigration cases. Deploying an army of over 200 lobbyists who have worked for them in the last decade, these companies will doubtlessly be trying to carve out more market share for themselves as part of the solution to the current crisis.

The 57,000: A Moment of Truth

How the Obama administration handles the approximately 57,000 unaccompanied children on the border will frame immigration policy for the foreseeable future. More border security, more detention centers and more ankle bracelets stand as the most likely option. A more honest and constructive choice in the long run would be to acknowledge these 57,000 as political and economic refugees, many of who have landed at border posts due to past US policy measures. For example, the rise of gangs in Guatemala and El Salvador is directly linked to the 1980s wave of immigrants who fled violence initiated by US-backed dictators in their countries. Many of those young immigrants landed in Los Angeles and got caught up in existing gangs. Instead of addressing the situation by tackling issues of poverty, unemployment and immigration status, authorities applied the mass incarceration formula of racialized policing and harsh sentences, topped off with forced repatriation. This propelled deportation levels to all-time highs and increased the Latino prison population by over 50 percent in the first decade of this century.

The deportation of unreconstructed gang members then facilitated a replication of LA gang culture and the war on drugs in Central America, helping land Guatemala and El Salvador among the top five countries in the world in terms of per capita murder rate. Moreover, in the case of Honduras, the tacit US support for a government installed as the result of a 2009 coup against popularly elected President Manuel Zelaya opened the door to freewheeling activities by the repatriated gang members as well. For the last two years, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world. Ultimately, the unprecedented level of criminal violence in these three Central American nations has driven the unaccompanied children to the US-Mexican border where they have become a potent symbol of the failure of immigration and criminal justice policy.

Whether it is the war on drugs or the war on immigrants, whether it is supermax prisons, detention centers or house arrest with ankle monitors, the punitive approach to solving social problems has failed poor people of color in this country and beyond. Billions have been wasted on carceral construction and border walls that could have gone to develop communities. However, these 57,000 unaccompanied children also provide an opportunity to do something different. Unfortunately, the best on offer from the deporter-in-chief, as immigrants’ rights activists now call President Obama, is likely to be fast track deportation, more troops on the border – and ankle bracelets.