Rush Limbaugh. Glenn Beck. Bill O'Reilly. Sean Hannity. Lou Dobbs: Five now-household names made rich and famous by those wonderful folks who brought us cable and talk radio.
All were gung-go for that grotesquely-misnamed government euphemism known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." All were joined at Dubya's hip as cheerleaders for "democratizing" Iraq. All were megaphones for the CIA's "black sites" and "extraordinary renditions." And all were eager to tell us all about the superb cuisine and exquisite personal service accorded the guests at Gitmo-by-the-Sea.
Until the lies and uselessness of these misadventures became so obvious that they lost their ratings value. Another headline-grabber had to be found!
And, Eureka, our five horsemen found their Holy Grail: A new cottage industry called:
Undocumented workers were every bit as evil as Al Qaeda. Terrorists were crossing our borders with "dirty bombs" concealed under their fruit-pickers' farmhand garb and waiters' uniforms. IEDs were among the tools they brought in to build our homes.
They pushed for 3,000-mile-long fences between us and Mexico. They attacked the Department of Homeland Security for failing to enforce our laws of entry. They proposed sending the National Guard to our Southern border. They opposed public education and health care for the undocumented, including their children -- many of whom were American citizens, born in the U.S.A. They backed the Minutemen's brand of vigilante justice. They cheered when the government raided workplaces and took fathers and mothers away from their families. They cried out for the arrest and "expedited removal" of some twelve million illegals, though they never quite got around to telling us how they were going to do that and what effect that might have on the U.S. economy.
They perpetuated the fear-mongering myths of the RNC and the Yahoos on the wingnut right.
Like this one:
Myth: Immigrants are driving up our health care costs and bankrupting our emergency rooms because they have no insurance.
Fact: Non-citizens are significantly less likely to use emergency room services than U.S. citizens. Insured immigrants have much lower medical expenses than insured U.S.-born citizens. Insured immigrants' per-person medical expenditures are 1/2 to 2/3 less than the U.S.-born patient with similar characteristics. Recent immigrants constitute 5 percent of the non-elderly adult population, but are responsible for 2 percent of adults' total health care costs, making their share disproportionately low. Four out of five people in America who have no insurance are U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens make up the majority of the uninsured (78 percent), while immigrants account for 22 percent of the non-elderly uninsured.
But, predictably, in thousands of hours of bloviating on TV and radio, not a single one of these five horsemen has ever uttered the first word about what is arguably the most shameful aspect of the immigration issue. That word is:
But then, why should we have expected to ever hear that word? Hell, if black sites were hunky-dory with these guys, why not use them for other Enemies of the State?
And what are those detention conditions they never mention?
ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency -- part of the sprawling and dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- owns and operates its own detention facilities, and also rents bed space from county and city prisons and jails. ICE locks up about 32,000 civil immigration detainees each day -- 400,000 a year.
Most of these are pursuing their immigration cases in the courts, if they can wangle access to a lawyer. This is a system that puts little children in prison scrubs, that regularly denies detainees basic needs, like contact with lawyers and loved ones, like soap and sanitary napkins. It is a system that incarcerates whole families. It is also a system that separates parents from children. It is a system where people who are not dangerous criminals (in case you don't know, alleged immigration violations are civil, not criminal, offenses) get injured, sick and die because of indifference or the lack of availability of timely medical care. It is a system that has produced more than 90 detainee deaths since 2003.
And just this week, prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit seeking previously unreleased documents related to the deaths of immigration detainees in U.S. custody, DHS officials revealed 11 deaths that have occurred at detention facilities since 2004 that the government had previously failed to publicly disclose.
ICE's city, county and private prisons and jails also house serious criminals. Yet immigration detainees -- including asylum seekers, legal immigrants, victims of human trafficking, and immigrants with no criminal records -- are mixed in with the general prison population. They are stashed away in penal-like facilities for months and sometimes years, with virtually no due process and often without the most basic safeguards, like hearings to assess the need for continued detention.
Many illegal immigrants who will be deported cannot leave the U.S. due to the fact that their country of origin will not accept them, so they must stay in the immigration jails for years or even life until a country will agree to take them. Some immigrants cannot go back to their original country out of fear of persecution and death. So we keep them locked up.
At the T. Don Hutto detention center in Texas, 26 immigrant children between the ages of one and 17 were detained with their parents who, in almost all cases, were seeking asylum.
More than 60 detainees have recently been on hunger strikes to protest conditions at the immigration detention center in Basile, Louisiana. Authorities there retaliated by putting the hunger strikers in solitary confinement.
In California, detainees are held in a private facility in San Diego, a government-run center in El Centro and at 13 local jails throughout the state. There have been a ton of well-documented violations of normal standards for legal and family visits at both San Pedro and at a Lancaster facility run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Among the findings of one reliable study, there were at least 41 facilities that did not give detainees the minimum number of hours and days of recreation required by their own standards, and 19 centers did not offer any outdoor recreation time at all. The report also found deficiencies in access to phones and legal information. For example, at least 29 detention facilities had no law library, and 30 centers failed to provide reasonable privacy for legal calls. In addition, detainees were often placed in solitary confinement without justification.
We're not talking about some bizarre fiction like "Death Panels." You just can't make this stuff up!
Think I'm kidding? Read on.
One 23-year-old was found not guilty of transporting explosives during a road trip with a friend who had packed model rocket propellants in the trunk of his car. But three days later, in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Tampa, he was arrested again by immigration authorities. The new charge was that he "is engaged in or is likely to engage in" terrorist activities, a violation of his legal residency in the U.S.
A 26-year-old Chinese woman told Amnesty researchers that she fled to the U.S. after she and her mother were beaten in China for handing out religious fliers. She arrived in America seeking asylum in 2008 and was detained at the airport, then transferred to a county jail. No one told her why she was being held. Without explanation, ICE ordered her to remain in detention unless she could pay a $50,000 bond, which neither neither her relatives in the U.S. nor her family in China was able to raise. After almost a year in detention, they were able to post the bond and win her release.
Wait. It gets worse.
One young man was deported and then caught when he tried to sneak back in over the Canadian border. He was convicted and spent five years in jail. As he was about to be released, a prison official looked at his file and discovered that he was a natural-born U.S. citizen!
How did this happen? Well, it's been happening for many years. Since back when ICE was the INS -- the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But, after 9/11, Bush officials ramped it all up, cobbling together a network of federal centers, state and county lockups and private, for-profit prisons. They needed lots of beds to warehouse the tens of thousands of people its raiders and local police were flushing out of the shadows. Thanks to reports on the secretive system, particularly those by Nina Bernstein in the New York Times, folks who were paying attention learned that detainees were being locked up and forgotten and denied access to lawyers and their families. They languished, sickened and died without medical attention.
And speaking of the New York Times, please note that it's one of the few MSM newspapers that has published anything on this issue. Others include the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Ditto, radio and television -- even among the few progressive outlets. For example, Rachel Maddow has commented on immigration matters from time to time, but has never, ever, not once, tackled the detention issue.*
What is the Obama Administration doing about this outrage? Is our President still committed to his campaign promises to "secure our borders, fix our dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy, increase the number of legal immigrants in order to keep families together, and bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows."
Well, the President has told us comprehensive immigration reform will have to wait until next year. But, meanwhile, the Obama administration has refused to promulgate regulations that would require immigration detention facilities to adhere to basic standards of care. It rejected a petition by former detainees and civil rights organizations requesting a rule-making procedure in the wake of public reports detailing the humanitarian crisis in the facilities.
The new overseer of ICE, John Morton, said he wanted to turn immigration detention into a "truly civil detention system," one focused on safely and humanely holding people accused of civil immigration violations until they are deported or released. The announced reforms that included creating offices and advisory boards to focus on medical care and the management of centers, reviewing contracts with private prisons and local jails, and installing managers at the 23 largest centers to make sure complaints are heard and problems fixed.
He said centers would face random inspections. Community groups and immigrant advocates would be invited to offer advice and comment. And the government would stop sending parents with children to a notorious prison near Austin, Texas, as it sought alternatives to the Bush-era tactic of putting whole families behind bars.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Christian Science Monitor that the administration is not waiting for Congress to revamp immigration detention programs. "These major changes in detention ... will result in a system that deals with detainees in an efficient, transparent, and humane manner," she said.
Doubtless we should find some encouragement in these proposed changes. At least, our government has acknowledged that we have a problem. But don't break out the champagne just yet. These kinds of promises have been made before, and nothing's changed. My online friend, Mark Dow, wrote a book on the subject - American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. That was in 2004, but what he described could have happened this morning.
And even if the DHS is now serious, the changes they're proposing will take many years to achieve.
Maybe it will help that Congress is also getting into the act: Legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would change the laws governing immigration detention and increase oversight and enforceability of detention standards. But given the lawmakers' cluttered calendar, don't hold your breath waiting.
Meanwhile, the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse are using the current debate on health care reform to whip up more of their toxic brew. Daphne Eviatar of The Washington Independent reports that, "As the heat gets turned up on the health care reform debate, anti-immigrant activists are using the issue to whip up fear and anger toward immigrants, portraying them as a costly and burdensome drain on any taxpayer-supported U.S. health care system. Angry questions about illegal immigrants getting health care at town hall meetings across the country have put many lawmakers on the defensive."
Why are we not surprised?
And why don't the American people know more about what's being done in our name?
There are a number of explanations, but they all come down to power, money, politics, and fear. Immigration has become one of the third rails of American politics. With their principles totally eclipsed by the 2010 mid-term elections, politicians are terrified by the tsunami of jingoistic populism currently sweeping our country. (Witness, the "death panels" town halls.)
At the same time, their political skins are vulnerable because they know that Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing voter demographic - and Hispanics happen to be the largest slice of those in ICE custody. Maybe they can console themselves in the knowledge that illegal immigrants and resident aliens can't vote.
Also, detention is but a sub-set of immigration, writ large. Most lawmakers think it's too far down in the weeds for the American public to grasp.
Then, too, the playing field ain't exactly level. Advocates for changes in our detention system have limited clout and little money. And they're being opposed by interests that have lots of clout and virtually unlimited money. Included is the well-organized lobbying apparatus opposed to any version of immigration reform. Also included are the companies that have reaped a post-9/11 profits bonanza by operating private for-profit prisons.
Finally, the detention issue has been marked by a series of head-scratching decisions by the Obama Administration. While the DHS's Napolitano was announcing sweeping future reforms in ICE's detention practices, she was also committing to an expansion of a little-known statutory provision that allows DHS to deputize local law enforcement authorities to arrest and detain alleged immigration violators. These "partnerships" now exist all over the country.
That has resulted in a highly complex legal specialty being administered by cops who have no knowledge or experience in this discipline -- and siphoning off people-power and resources needed to do the important work cops are trained to do. That program happens to be opposed by most law enforcement authorities in the U.S.
But not all. Some think it's just dandy. That's how we end up with people like Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "Toughest Sheriff in America," who is one of the DHS's "partners" in this program. Arpaio and his merry men are busily rounding up anything that moves in Maricopa County (Pheonix, etc.), Arizona -- while at the same time being investigated by the Justice Department for violating his victims' civil rights.
But, lest I leave you in a state of clinical depression, let me sign off here on a slightly more encouraging note.
Lou Dobbs, one of the "Five Horsemen," has recently experienced some kind of epiphany (or else he finally got the memo from his bosses at CNN). After his endless tirades against immigration and immigrants -- spiced more recently by the large megaphone he's handed the "birthers" and the "deathers" -- Dobbs has begun what is being billed as a year-long series of reports on the health care systems of other countries in the world.
I watched the first of these last week -- and, lo and behold, here was Lou Dobbs, actually sounding like a journalist. And he wasn't just playing a journalist on TV; his report was mostly solid and factual. He even had a few positive things to report about the single-payer system. For a change, he spoke as though he respected the intelligence of the American people.
Well, if Lou Dobbs can get born again, maybe there's still a sliver of hope for Hannity, O'Reilly, Limbaugh and Beck.
Let us pray!
Jason Leopold, Editor-in-Chief of The Public Record, contributed research for this article.
* In an earlier version of this story, I wrote that even progressive TV outlets, like Countdown with Keith Olbermann, had not tackled the immigration detention issue. I am grateful to Amy Shuster of MSNBC for correcting me. Keith did indeed address the issue, and here is a link to his broadcast.