JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Under the Obama administration, more undocumented immigrants have been deported then under any other president. One-point-five million people were deported as of last year, with the ACLU putting that figure as approaching 2 million deportations. That’s an all-time record. Many activists, including many undocumented immigrants themselves, have resorted to civil disobedience to stop buses transporting deportees to detention centers, where they are said to face unjust and inhumane conditions.
With us to discuss the issue around immigration and the conditions at government Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) centers is Catalina Nieto. She’s the field director of the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to expose and challenge the injustices of the U.S. immigration, detention, and deportation system.
Thanks for joining us, Catalina.
CATALINA NIETO, FIELD DIRECTOR, DETENTION WATCH NETWORK: Thank you so much for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Catalina, let’s get right into it. Given that more people are actually being deported than ever before—we’re talking about 1.5 times more a month then under President George W. Bush. So we’re really see this proliferation. Just give us a sense of the scale of detention centers. How many are we talking about across the country? And what are the conditions like?
NIETO: Yeah. So I think there’s a few things that we should mention in terms of, like, things that have been put in place to create the conditions that we’re seeing right now. One of them is in 1996 there were mandatory detention laws that passed, which pretty much makes anyone who is going through a deportation process should be mandated to be detained. We also saw in Bush administration that a bed quota was put in place mandating 34,000 beds to be filled every day by ICE.
So we’re seeing a huge expansion of the detention system, specifically starting in 1996 to now. Last year, for example, more than 400,000 peoples were detained and deported. We have right now over 250 detention centers across the country.
Fifty percent of the detention centers are private prison corporations that run those detention centers. The other 50 percent are contracts that ICE makes with county jails, local jails.
We’re seeing, in terms of people in detention, we, our organization, last year came out with the Expose and Close reports highlighting conditions in ten of the worst detention centers in the country, but really to show kind of, like, what’s the story overall across the nation in terms of conditions in detention. We’re seeing, for example, at Irwin Detention Center, Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, Stewart Detention Center, the Atlanta Detention Center, in California, people are being fed food with worms, rotten food. Earlier this year at Eloy detention center, two people committed suicide within the same week.
We’re also hearing a lot of stories about people being put in solitary confinement as disciplinary reason, or people who are transgender, for example, and are put in solitary confinement supposedly because of—for their protection. That’s what they say. And in general, people who are in detention or subject to mandatory detention don’t have the right to due process, don’t have the right to a fair hearing.
Many of these detention centers are built in very, very remote areas. So visiting people, their families come—being able to go visit their loved ones in detention, it takes two, three, four hours to go to one of these detention centers. And then once you get there, sometimes visitation is done through a video. You don’t—you cannot even have personal contact with your loved ones.
So this is just, you know, some of the highlights of what’s happening with this very unjust and inhumane system.
DESVARIEUX: —talk about these detention centers without mentioning this battle really happening on Capitol Hill over immigration reform. Just to get a sense from you and your network, what are you seeing as being the product of this bipartisan bill that was approved in the Senate? Do you actually have hope that it’s going to pass? Or do you even want it to pass? What is your position on it?
NIETO: I mean, I think for us, as I mentioned before, eliminating mandatory detention should be key to any immigration reform. Eliminating the bed quota, the 34,000 bed quota, should be part of any immigration reform, which we’re not seeing right now in the proposed bills. Also, a lot of people who have criminal convictions would not get any protection, would not get legalization. And we want to make sure that any immigration reform that’s coming from the Congress really protects all immigrants, not just a few. Right? So, I think, for us, making sure that there’s no bed quota, that deportations stop, that criminalization of our communities stops, and that private prison corporations are not making profit off of having us in jail is another key point that unfortunately the Senate proposal does not include.
DESVARIEUX: You mentioned, you know, obviously, getting rid of mandatory detention and things like that. But what would real immigration policy reform look like to you?
NIETO: So, I mean, I think, as I mentioned before, in terms of—we want to make sure that people are not deported, that people are not detained. Right now anyone who is not a citizen is subject to detention. So we’re talking about asylum-seekers, refugees, undocumented immigrants. They’re being subject to detention.
And as I mentioned before, we’re talking about a system that’s at its core inhumane. There’s no dignity at all within the system. And we want to make sure that there’s a dramatic decrease of detention in the country.
So true immigration reform should include closing detention centers, should include changing the laws so that not so many people are subject to mandatory detention, should include a complete stop of deportations, and just in general people should be able to be treated with human rights. Anyone, no matter the situation, should have their basic human rights in this country.
DESVARIEUX: Catalina, I’m just going to push back a little bit and bring up the counterargument, because, of course, and nation has a right to decide who enters and their immigration policy there. What would you sort of say to those who say that, you know, deportations and the right of a nation to decide who gets to stay and who has to leave is within their right? What do you say to people who say that?
NIETO: So I think—I mean, one thing that for me is very important and for us in general, us the network, is that, as I said before, no one should be subject to such treatment of inhumanity and injustice. In general, I think it’s important for us to also make sure that we look at the impact that U.S. policy has in other countries and having a part in forcing people to migrate. So we’re talking about free trade agreements that are forcing people to migrate from their home countries. I’m from Columbia, for example, a country that has received over $7 billion in military aid from the U.S. And because of this, it has the largest amount of internally displaced people in the world. So there’s kind of, like, a push-and-pull factor. And I think it’s important to make sure that we’re looking at the larger spectrum of things in terms of when we’re talking about migration and the role that the U.S. also has in forcing people to migrate to this country, and, you know, secondly, to make sure that people in this country that do come here are protected, because many are fleeing situations of war, situations of complete inhumanity and injustice, and then they come here to be treated the same way. No one should be subjected to such conditions.
DESVARIEUX: Very well said. Catalina Nieto, thank you so much for joining us.
NIETO: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.