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Obama's Vision of "Truly Civil" Immigrant Prison Reform: More Prisoners, More Prisons

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An article in today's New York Times provides an outline of the Obama administration's vision of immigrant detention reform: more prisoners, more prisons -- but a "truly civil system." That there will be no fundamental changes to the massively corrupt and widely criticized detention system can be seen in these statements from the story:

  • John Morton,head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): "Detention on a large scale must continue, he said, "but it needs to be done thoughtfully and humanely."
  • "So far, the new administration has embraced many of those policies, expanding a program to verify worker immigration status that has been widely criticized, bolstering partnerships between federal immigration agents and local police departments, and rejecting a petition for legally binding rules on conditions in immigration detention."
  • "Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said last week that she expected the number of detainees to stay the same or grow slightly."
  • "Asked if his vision could include building new civil detention centers, he (Morton) said yes."

As can be seen from these statements coming from administration officials, President Obama appears willing to maintain and even expand a system of immigrant prisons that civil and human rights organizations across the country and around the world have criticized for the subhuman conditions and deaths found in that system.

The Obama administration's talk of "truly civil" immigrant prisons and of imprisoning immigrants more "thoughtfully and humanely" are reminiscent of similar talk by the Bush administration. After civil and human rights groups criticized the Bush administration for the the terror fostered by and the illegality of its raids, Bush's Homeland Security officials began talking about how they would "humanize" immigration raids. A recent report by the Cardozo School of Law documented how the widespread racial profiling and other violations have continued even after the announcement to "humanize" the raids, raids -- and violations -- that continue under the Obama administration.

Many immigrant prison reform advocates believe that failure to fundamentally alter the "crimmigration" laws that have caused the immigrant prison population to mushroom over the past several years means that such announcements by the Obama administration will ring as hollow as President Obama's talk of "racial profiling" did after his administration quietly announced an expansion of 287(G),one of the largest racial profiling programs in the history of federal government.

It is doubtful that any but those desperate to either secure favor from or provide political cover to the Obama administration will lend their public approval to what many consider an insulting attempt to put a cosmetic cover on the beaten, bruised and sometimes dead body of the rotting detention system. It is also doubtful that pronouncements of a "truly civil"immigrant prison system will do anything to stop the increased attacks on Janet Napolitano -- and Obama -- from their allies in the immigrant rights community. If anything, the pronouncements may intensify that anger by virtue of the insult to their intelligence and moral sensibilities many advocates may feel such a cosmetic politic of prison reform represents.