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We Can’t Trade a Path to Legalization in Exchange for More Border Militarization

Author Silky Shah says immigration enforcement and the prison-industrial complex are intertwined systems of oppression.

A bird sits perched on amid razor wire over the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Campo, California, on April 4, 2024.

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Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, a 27-year-old, national coalition working to abolish the incarceration of immigrants in the United States, says that the domestic “immigration enforcement system and the prison-industrial complex are not separate, but are intertwined systems of oppression.” Her first book, Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition, convincingly argues that these dual systems operate in tandem, relying on a carceral logic that is focused on punishment for any and all infractions.

The heavily researched book is filled with statistics and hard facts, and offers a brief history of modern immigration detention that charts its astronomical growth over the past half century. Moreover, Shah zeroes in on the many social welfare organizations that are aiding asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented and offers a searing critique of the ways many have capitulated to mainstream fears about homeland security, crime and the need for tougher border policies. What’s more, Unbuild Walls describes a paradigm in which some immigrants are deemed “good” and others “bad,” a dichotomy that is largely predicated on their race and country of origin.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Shah discusses the U.S.’s long history of immigrant exclusion, the need for prison abolition, and the connection between the immigration enforcement system and the prison-industrial complex.

Eleanor J. Bader: During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people called for the abolition of immigrant detention. Then the pandemic ended. How has this impacted the demand for abolition?

Silky Shah: Well before the pandemic, many organizers and organizations were calling for abolition. The Detention Watch Network, for one, began calling for the abolition of immigrant detention in 2012. Still, in 2020, there were openings that allowed us to raise the issue more widely. The Black Lives Matter uprisings and the unwarranted gynecological procedures that were being carried out on immigrant women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia were constantly in the news. Even some government officials were conceding that there was an overuse of detention. This allowed for an increased focus on abolition. Unfortunately, the mainstream demand for less incarceration quickly turned to performance reform — the need for better risk assessment and better case management — instead of abolition, and it has been hard to get people to hold onto ending detention. As I write in the book, while exposing horrible conditions in prison can make a difference, the Detention Watch Network doesn’t want to see more comfortable cages.

What do you say to people who believe that detention facilities are necessary to punish lawbreakers?

While exposing horrible conditions in prison can make a difference, the Detention Watch Network doesn’t want to see more comfortable cages.

First, people in immigration detention are there for civil violations, but I argue that the reason immigrants are detained mirrors the reason for mass incarceration: it is a way to warehouse people who are considered disposable. This raises questions about the role of government and how it treats people in the absence of social safety net programs.

From what I’ve seen, criminalization and so-called deterrence are the government’s main answer to how we handle immigration. There are several reasons for this. First, many white Americans are fearful of demographic change and worry that immigrants are a drain on already limited resources. Then there is the economy, which has been increasingly tied to military growth and the growth of carceral institutions. Many localities are now dependent on revenue from the prison-industrial complex and the jobs that are provided.

The idea that some immigrants are “good” and deserving to be accepted by American society while others are “bad” and undeserving is a central argument in Unbuild Walls. How did this division develop?

There has been a very long history of exclusion in this country. The Page Act of 1875 was the first federal law to restrict entry of Chinese women into the U.S. The ban was extended to most Chinese workers in 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress. Many different bills have been enacted. They’re always a response to what is happening in the world at a particular time and the ways racism and xenophobia are being articulated.

Movements for social justice, of course, have also influenced legislative change. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the Hart-Celler Act was passed. This abolished the previous system of quotas that had existed since the 1920s and that based admission to the U.S. on national origin. The law resulted in more immigrants coming in from Africa, Asia and Latin America, but placed greater restrictions on Mexicans.

Then, between April and October 1980, the Mariel Boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians into the U.S. Before this, some immigrant detention happened, but it grew tremendously in response to the Boatlift. Haitians were deemed economic migrants and the idea of the “bad immigrant” began to take shape. Fear of crime also ramped up. In fact, crime became a proxy for the idea of the “bad immigrant” since some of the newcomers had been in jail before fleeing their homelands.

We should be asking ourselves and our government why our economy is so dependent on constant war and incarceration.

The response was draconian. In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act eliminated federal parole for pre-trial detention. Two years later, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime for employers to hire undocumented workers. A decade later, under Bill Clinton, the law increased penalties on immigrants who violate U.S. law and led to a huge spike in the number of deportations.

Add in increased funding for more police on the streets and the idea that we have to “get tough on crime” and we get to our current reality.

The law has gone through many changes over the past century. Other than a professed fear of crime, what has driven these changes?

Some of it is related to anti-Black racism and xenophobia and some of it depends on whether particular people are seen as useful to the economy. National security became an issue after 9/11, which took government spending and the law to levels we had never seen before, but it was the harsh laws that were passed in the 1980s and 1990s that laid the groundwork for the U.S. to become the world’s leading incarcerator.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, the number of deportations skyrocketed and he became known as the deporter-in-chief despite his attempts at reform.

At one point in the early 2000s, many advocates and activists called for the legalization of the 11 million undocumented people living in the country. Is that still a demand?

Yes. People continue to push for legalization although political conditions have changed. We often hear people say that we need comprehensive immigration reform but what they mean by that is never made clear. We at the Detention Watch Network don’t want to see legalization in exchange for increased border militarization or more immigrant detention or deportation. The question becomes: What sort of legalization are we willing to accept? Tradeoffs can be harmful to the movement for immigrant justice.

People see Trump as an aberration but he simply built on systems that George W. Bush, Clinton and Obama had created.

You write that the growth of immigrant detention and the growth of jails and prisons are two sides of the same coin. Both, you argue, need to be dismantled. Please say more about their connection.

The idea that some people should not be here in the U.S., coupled with a concern about crime, has expanded detention. Some of the harshest immigration laws ever passed were promulgated during the Clinton administration. They were a reaction to the idea of rising crime but lawmakers just kept expanding the scope of what was considered criminal behavior. This led to widespread dehumanization of immigrants and opened the door to people like Donald Trump calling immigrants “animals.” We have failed to examine who we’re deeming “illegal” and who we’re deeming a “criminal.” We need to stop and ask why so many people in the U.S. are being warehoused in prisons, jails and detention centers.

As for the relationship between immigrant and nonimmigrant detention, we’ve seen some state prisons close and later reopen as immigrant detention facilities and vice versa. We should be asking ourselves and our government why our economy is so dependent on constant war and incarceration. I see the symbiotic relationship between all kinds of detention centers — whether government-run or private — as something to be exposed and denounced.

So many communities are now reliant on the revenue that jails and prisons provide to residents. How can we transition to other kinds of employment for these folks?

No one wants to see people lose their jobs, but we know that detention facilities can be repurposed. I don’t have a roadmap but I believe we can do it if the will is there.

We have to be bold. Many people think that Obama ended up becoming the deporter-in-chief because he was attempting to enact comprehensive immigration reform and bring Republicans on board, but he was fully invested in the “war on crime.” He was not opposed to jailing immigrants and his policies resulted in more people being imprisoned. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) police apparatus was also strengthened during his time in office. In fact, all of the reforms that were proposed during his presidency were grounded in carceral logic.

Both the Democrats and the Biden administration have let Abbott dictate policy. It is infuriating.

People see Trump as an aberration but he simply built on systems that George W. Bush, Clinton and Obama had created.

What about family separation policies?

Family separation has been an issue for those of us working to dismantle immigration detention for a long time, so it was wild to see how many people it brought into the streets in the summer of 2018.

During the Obama administration, thousands of kids ended up in foster care because their parents had been deported. And if you look at prisons more generally, you find that at least half of people who are incarcerated have minor children. They’re living with ongoing family separation. The idea that Trump started these separations is a fallacy; family separation escalated under Obama and is still happening under Biden.

Sanctuary cities have been on the receiving end of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s busing policy, which has sent hundreds of thousands of newcomers from the Lone Star State to cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. If anything illustrates the failure of immigration policy, this seems to be it!

Both the Democrats and the Biden administration have refused to offer any kind of counter-vision to Abbott. A robust safety net is desperately needed but it is not there, and the Biden administration has not intervened to get migrants to other places in the country or do anything to support them once they arrive in sanctuary cities. They have let Abbott dictate policy. It is infuriating.

Immigration is about people seeking work or refuge. We need to shift the paradigm away from an exclusive focus on public safety and national security. We can start by moving away from the idea of a militarized border; this will diffuse things and create a better environment for immigrants. The government also needs to expand who is eligible for humanitarian parole and change the law to let migrants enter and re-enter the United States without being criminalized. People today feel trapped. Many want to work in the U.S. for a few years, then go back to their home country or elsewhere. Some will later want to come back. Allowing fluidity of movement would be more humane and would better meet the needs of those who migrate.

What else would make the system more humane?

First, let’s talk about so-called alternatives to incarceration like ankle monitors, phone reporting, and things like SmartLink. These tools expand the number of people under government surveillance and are dehumanizing. We also need to reduce government spending on militarism and on carceral systems whether we’re talking about ICE, Border Patrol, county jails or the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Immigrants are not disposable. They deserve better. We all deserve better.

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