A sit-in in New Haven in defense of local immigrants. New Haven Independent photo

The United States uses immigration detention to enforce immigration laws. On its face, a simple statement. But as recently detailed by National Public Radio in a story supported by 1,600 pages of previously secret detention inspection reports, the hard truth is that horrible things happen to human beings behind these jailhouse doors. And it’s been happening regardless of what party holds the majority in Congress, or who is in the White House.  

Detention is not a border problem. For example, fathers are routinely separated from their families and kept in immigration detention. When broken families arrive in Connecticut needing extra assistance or families lose a breadwinner to an interior arrest, that’s detention working in your backyard. While there are no detention centers currently operating in Connecticut, all taxpayers, regardless of political orientation, need to make an informed opinion on whether they can abide by this status quo. 

Jennifer Whitlock

Our government primarily uses immigration detention to ensure that alleged noncitizens show up for court appearances. I say alleged, because U.S. citizens can also end up in detention until they prove their status. In some cases, the government detains someone whom they consider a public safety risk. The factors feeding into these decisions are nebulous, at best.  Indeed, 61% of the people currently in immigration detention have no criminal record (not that a criminal record is a definitive barometer of someone’s propensity to do harm). And immigration court records demonstrate that noncitizens overwhelmingly appear for their court appearances at a rate of 83%, add in an attorney or case management programs and those rates increase to nearly 100%   

But, assuming that you agree that depriving someone of their liberty is reasonable to mitigate flight risk or an articulable risk to public safety, you as a human being, likely do not agree that exposing them to physical and mental harm should be part of the bargain. Remember, civil immigration detention is not meant to be a punishment. And yet… what else do you call locking people with mental health issues in restraints without justification and using pepper spray when not warranted?   

Even if your response to report after report of medical neglect and abuse is that it is the work of a few “bad apples,” the fact is that the detention oversight system can only provide remedial relief. The harm has been done by the time a report ever sees the light of day. In custody, noncitizens die preventable deaths. And the bad apples are rarely held to account and even if they were, there is no way to bring a loved one back from the dead.  

This harm to noncitizens is the non-monetary cost of the detention business. And business is booming for the largely privately operated system of immigration detention. A system that the Biden administration pledged to move away from, but a recent study found that  90% of the roughly 31,000 people currently being held in detention are private facilities or operated by private companies.  

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, as chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, can be commended for steering through bills that have not funded family detention and, in fiscal year 2022, reduced funds for immigration detention. But sharks are circling in the water and there are always calls for more funds. As if we could detain our way out of a worldwide migration and refugee crisis.  

Instead, Congress should fund legal service providers and community-based groups that  work to help immigrants navigate our court system. Basic things like making a plan for how to get to court and finding a lawyer to prepare for their case, so they get a fair shot. For higher risk people, release with conditions, payment of high bonds, confiscation of passport and other common sense, less costly, and less deadly measures could be used.  

Reducing and phasing out the use of immigration detention will be complicated. The government will have to end or alter existing contracts with private entities. Local economies dependent on jailing migrants will need to find new revenue streams. But where there is political will, there is a way.  

Jennifer Whitlock is the supervisory policy and practice counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.