The [undocumented] person, without right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law. He was liable to jail sentences without ever committing a crime … Since he was the anomaly for which the general law did not provide, it was better for him to become an anomaly for which it did provide, that of the criminal. Hannah Arendt, 1951
An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility for illegal immigrants on July 30, 2010 in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
For almost two decades, legislators and Presidents have treated immigration detention as some sort of “magic bullet” that will deter would be immigrants from crossing the U.S. border, instill terror in communities so that immigrants will voluntarily leave, and criminalize individuals through incarceration if they choose to fight deportation because they are U.S. citizens, refugees, lawful permanent residents, or breadwinners with long-time ties to their U.S. families, communities and workplaces.
Today NPR reported that Arizona’s recent draconian immigration law, SB1070, was written in collusion with the leadership of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists. The law requires Arizona police to stop and ask for papers proving legal residency if the officer has “reasonable suspicion” to believe the person is undocumented. If the person can’t immediately produce papers, she will be arrested and detained. Lawsuits arguing that the law was unconstitutional were almost immediately filed because it would be almost impossible to “identify” an undocumented person without resorting to racial profiling.
Criminalizing immigrants through detention has proven to be no magic bullet in managing migratory trends, but it has certainly proven to be a golden goose for these private prison operators. As the President of Geo Group,Wayne Calabrese, explained to its investors, according to NPR:
“I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me, at least I think, there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”
Depriving someone of their liberty through detention is a very coercive measure, which carries a strong stigma and severely impacts on individual rights. Criminalizing immigrants, not only by imposing criminal penalties for entering or remaining in the U.S without permission, but also by stigmatizing and criminalizing third parties who care for them, may have the effect of limiting or entirely denying protection and access to fundamental human rights, such as adequate housing or health care.
At the same time, documentation shows that “inflexible policies of exclusion, which are enforced through severe punishments of a penal nature and deportation for their breach, feed directly into the hands of traffickers,” who each year enslave thousands of women, men and children in the U.S., while the federal government adamantly declares its intention to protect trafficked persons.
For years, advocates have linked the massive growth in immigration detention with the exponential profits reaped by private prisons. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has picked up the enormous bill for a prison system that is widely viewed as cruel, inept and dysfunctional. It’s not good immigration policy, but it’s a terrific business strategy.