The Human Cost of Cashing in on Immigrant Detentions

Record numbers of immigrant detainments have prisons seeing dollar signs

| February 22, 2007


Border control these days looks more like traffic control. While one hand closes the borders to undocumented immigrants, the other funnels them through cell doors. And the prison industry is all too happy to accept them. As reported on DemocracyNow!, the League of United Latino American Citizens (LULAC) says that a record number of more than 26,000 undocumented immigrants are now being detained in the United States.

According to Deepa Fernandes of CorpWatch,  immigrants are the fastest growing prison population in the United States today, with courts processing 350,000 immigrants in fiscal year 2005. Those numbers translate to dollar signs for a prison industry that only six years ago was wallowing in a $1 billion debt. But that, Fernandes reports, was before a post-9/11 border crackdown, and before the 'government began to target non-citizens with mass arrests during sweeps through immigrant communities.'

Now the increase in detainees is winning the prison industry contracts to build new prisons to house them. And the influx of incarcerated immigrants has the added business value of providing prisons with a cheap labor force; since the Department of Homeland Security restricts non-citizen prisoners from earning more than a $1 a day, the prisons get maintenance workers and janitors for a pittance. 'The war on drugs has conveniently become a war on immigrants,' Tucson attorney and human rights activist Isabel García told CorpWatch, 'and there is a lot of money to be made in detaining immigrants.'

Beyond the staggering numbers of incarcerated immigrants are the equally alarming imprisonment conditions. Take, for example, the 'tent city' that has been constructed in Raymondville, Texas, to house 2,000 detained immigrants. Within the confines of the windowless tents, detainees incur a 23-hour-a-day lock down, and, as CorpWatch notes (citing a recent Washington Post article), immigrants are 'often with insufficient food, clothing, medical care, and access to telephones.' Immigrant detainees can be held for months, even years, and, as DemocracyNow! reports, many are denied legal assistance.



What's worse is that many immigrants are being detained with their children, as is the case at the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center in Taylor, Texas. In These Times reports that about half of the approximately 400 immigrants at the facility are children. Many of the 'residents' are refugees seeking political asylum, who are being incarcerated while navigating deportation proceedings. (Mexicans, who fall under different procedures, are not kept at the facility.) Before the current crackdown, many of these people would have been able to go to work and school while their cases crept through the courts. And minors, if held at all, would have been able to attend school and receive other social services. Instead, attorneys tell In These Times, the children spend most of their time within a contained 'pod' and are permitted only an hour of schooling and an hour of playtime each day.

The correction center is now facing public outrage over the incarceration of noncriminal, nonviolent children, as well as a possible lawsuit from the University of Texas' Immigration Law Clinic. Texans United for Families, 'a coalition of attorneys, community organizations, and immigrants-rights groups,' is also lobbying to shut down the center.



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