Thursday, February 10, 2011

Financial Gain from Federal Immigration Detention Contract Will Not Outweigh the Human Cost

At one of their upcoming meetings, the Essex County Freeholders will be voting on a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) regarding a proposed a new 2,700 bed facility in Essex County. This facility would constitute a significant expansion to the immigration detention system, more than doubling the current number of immigration detention beds currently in NJ.

What everyone needs to understand about immigration enforcement and detention is that it is a system that is flawed, that is extremely costly, that it separates families and that it negatively impacts our local economies and communities.

In 1996, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRRA) was passed, detention became mandatory for those suspected of immigration violations (a civil offense under federal law). This quickly expanded a system of administrative detention comprised of about 3,000 beds to over 30,000 and growing. By the end of this year nearly 400,000 people will have passed through the immigration detention system and almost as many will have been deported.

Prior to this increase in detention and deportation the immigration court system was already overburdened and lacked oversight. In 2008, 214 immigration court judges decided 350,000 cases increasing the possibility for many more mistakes. In addition many of the rights meant to safeguard the innocent that apply in criminal cases such as the right to counsel, appeals, phone calls, etc. are not extended to people suspected of immigration violations.

Since 2003 over 100 people have died in immigration detention, some due to obvious medical neglect, though the count is uncertain because there is no process for reporting deaths in immigration detention and no investigation process.

Though it may be considered a money maker for Essex County, the new detention center will be paid for by our federal tax dollars. This year the immigration detention system will cost the US taxpayer $1.7 billon. The proposed Essex County complex alone will cost the US taxpayer in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars per day and in excess of $85 million per year. Just like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on immigrants is stealing money that could be used on much needed social programs.

Essex County will not see all of this money either as a private, for-profit company, namely Community Education Centers, or CEC, is said to be involved in the planned expansion. CEC has direct ties to both Joe DiVincenzo, the Essex County Executive and to Chris Christie. Bill Palatucci, Christie's former law firm partner and board member of Reform Jersey Now is an officer in CEC. Though Essex County had to participate in an open public bidding process with ICE there is no evidence that CEC did the same with Essex County.

Another nagging question is what will Essex County be getting for this money? Yes some jobs will be created, but it is unavoidable that the county will also be detaining and deporting long-time current residents, legal permanent residents and possible even US citizens for suspected immigration violations. Just over 23% of Essex County's population is foreign born, according to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau. Of this population, 71% have been in this country since before 2000 and 54% are not yet US Citizens. Under the current immigration system people with a legal claim to residency and even citizenship are often mistakenly detained and deported.

Once in the immigration system the burden falls on the individual to prove they have a legal right to be in the United States. Since they are not entitled to legal council, individuals, particularly those who are indigent or have limited ties to family or friends, can find that this is extremely difficult. As a result, the Boston College Law Post Deportation Human Rights Project (PDHRP) estimates that as many as 80,000- 100,000 people have been mistakenly deported. US citizens have been among them.

This was the case with Mark Lyttle who was born in Salisbury North Carolina. He was deported to Mexico in 2008 after serving 85 out of a 100 day sentence at the Pasquotank County Jail in North Carolina for a misdemeanor. Instead of being released Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made a determination that his real name was Jose Thomas, and that he was Mexican. Though he provided a social security number and the names of relatives, no one checked out his story. Since he had no money he could not afford the phone calls from detention to prove his case. Only after he managed to make his way from Mexico to a US embassy in Guatemala was his story checked out and he was repatriated to the United States.

Those in detention may be the primary breadwinners and caregivers to young children including children who are US citizens. Some 4 million children live in mixed immigration status families, where at least one parent is undocumented. Arguably, millions more live in families where one parent is a legal permanent resident who, because of the IIRRA, are at much greater risk of mandatory detention and deportation for minor non-violent offenses.

This increase in detention will negatively impact the local economy. Immigration detention removes workers and consumers from our local economies, reducing both economic output and consumer spending. Some of the residents of Essex County who will be incarcerated at the new detention center will be from mixed immigration status families, in which at least one parent is undocumented or is a legal permanent resident, and may include a spouse or children who are US citizens. Many will be the primary breadwinners or caregivers for their families. Their detention will only further burden our already stretched social services.

The Essex County Freeholders may be signing up to get big checks from the federal government, but how much will it cost the county and the state in the long run? These numbers that we talk about represent people, not commodities. Hundreds of thousands of lives continue to be ruined, and families continue to be separated. Does this short term financial gain really outweigh the lasting human cost of separated families and the removal of workers, business owners and active participants in our communities?

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