On August 6, 34-year-old immigration detainee Hiu Lui Ng died in Rhode Island, in severe pain from a fractured spine and terminal cancer which went undiagnosed and untreated over the year he spent in federal lockups. Valery Joseph, another immigration detainee, died of an apparent seizure at the Glades County Detention Center in Florida on June 20, just two weeks shy of his 24th birthday. Ng had been living in the US for half his life, since he was 17; Joseph had spent two thirds of his life here, having arrived at age 8. The two men joined a list of at least 80 people who have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since January 1, 2004.
Since May of this year, investigative stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and CBS News have exposed a pattern of serious medical neglect in the immigration detention system which appears to have been a factor in many of these deaths. (ICE denies the charges, unsurprisingly.)
By focusing on these compelling stories of human suffering, the mainstream media coverage has brought needed attention to the issue of mass incarceration in our immigration system.
Many concerned citizens are now demanding reform, saying that even people facing deportation have a right to basic medical care and humane treatment while detained. Others are less sympathetic, arguing that we shouldn't spend taxpayer dollars on health care for immigrants.
The obvious question isn't being asked: why are people detained at all? Why should we spend more than $1.2 billion a year to keep immigrants in prison? What purpose does immigration detention serve?
Officially, immigration detention is not supposed to be used as punishment; the immigration agency can only detain immigrants in order to more easily deport them, so that they don't "abscond" and evade removal. In reality, the federal government uses immigration detention to punish people for fighting their deportation cases, to pressure them to give up and return to their country of nationality, and to discourage other people from coming to the US to seek asylum.
But these aren't legally or morally acceptable justifications for detention.
Does it even matter whether people "abscond"? Is it really a problem if immigrants who are supposed to be deported end up staying here with their families--living, working, shopping and paying taxes? When we add up the cost in dollars, and in human lives, is it worth it to ensure that immigrants really leave the US?
On the other side of the globe, Australia has confronted the same question and has decided that the answer is no. On July 29, the Australian government announced it will stop routinely detaining asylum seekers while their immigration cases are pending; under the new policy, only adults who are considered a security risk may be detained--and even then, only as a last resort, and for the briefest possible time.
Back in the US, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. In 1994, there were an average of 6,785 people in immigration detention on any given day; in 2008, that number is around 32,000 and growing. That's an increase of more than 470% in less than 15 years.
Do you feel safer, knowing that 32,000 people are behind bars today for the sole reason that they were not born in this country and have been deemed "removable"? Are you satisfied to spend over $1.2 billion a year of your tax dollars keeping immigrants locked up while the prison industry's profits soar?
Why can't we just abolish immigration detention, the way debtor's prison was abolished in the 1800s?
The solution is not "alternatives to detention" like the electronic monitoring devices some immigrants are forced to wear on their ankles. As the Catholic Legal Immigration Network points out, such devices are "overly restrictive in nature and constitute other forms of detention, rather than meaningful alternatives to detention."
The alternative to detention is simple: no detention.
The government could end detention today by releasing the people who are fighting their cases, and letting everyone else--those who aren't trying to stay here--choose voluntary departure with a six-month period to make arrangements and leave on their own. (The incentive? Voluntary departure means they could later apply to return here legally.)
How much tragedy would be avoided this way? How much money would be saved?
Debtor's prison was considered normal once. So was slavery. But normal doesn't mean right. When slavery was normal (and legal), some reformers advocated for slaves to be treated decently, and not beaten, whipped or otherwise abused. And other people, denounced as radicals at the time, believed slavery was an abomination and organized to stop it.
In the end slavery was abolished, and so was debtor's prison. Immigration detention can also be stopped, if the voices of opposition become loud enough that Congress is forced to act.
Too many people have suffered for too long under our immigration detention system. How many deaths will it take before we end this abuse?
Jane Guskin is co-author of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, published by Monthly Review Press in July 2007. Guskin also edits Immigration News Briefs, a weekly newsletter covering immigration issues. She lives in New York City.