Immigrant detention and the forced removal of undesirable migrants are part of a long history of federal, local, and individual practices that criminalize certain (especially nonwhite) immigrants, resulting in their overall inequality. Mass detention and deportation intensify in times of “crisis,” in the name of fighting a war, defending the homeland, or protecting good “American” jobs. After 9/11, migrant incarceration has become conflated with the War on Terror —a de facto solution to a politically manufactured crisis. The Obama Administration has unveiled something called “Immigrant Detention Reform”—but it in no way reviews or derails this tendency. Instead, under the guise of offering “improved detention conditions,” such as LEED certified facilities, children’s libraries, and noninstitutional uniforms, an expansion of detention infrastructure is well underway. In this context, Chicagoland has become a testing ground for a new generation of detention centers—and for efforts to resist them. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) targeted south suburban Crete as a possible site but were defeated in the summer of 2012 by a number of community groups. As DHS and CCA shift their focus to Joliet , local organizers are trying to draw on lessons learned during the Crete campaign so that the new “site fight” around Joliet can be an expression of a more systemic critique of migrant criminalization and containment. We hope our essay will contribute to this reflection.
Migrant detention is currently the fastest growing incarceration industry in the US. In 1996, DHS had the capacity to “house” 8,279 people on any given day; today that capacity has grown to 33,400 captives, a 400% increase. For 2013, DHS requested about $2 billion for immigrant incarceration and received $67 million more than requested. Politicians from both sides of the aisle compete not only in their enthusiasm to exceed DHS funding requests, but also in experimenting with defining “crime” for purposes of immigration law.1 Immigration as a political issue is framed by promoting fear of “criminal aliens” such that public safety comes only through increased incarceration and surveillance. Detention and deportation are assumed to be necessary and inevitable. Remarkably, in the corporate media and in political debates, detention is discussed not in terms of prisoners and captors, but as a housing boom, a public/private growth sector responding to the government’s need to “take care” of illegalized populations. This sector is measured in vacancy rates, housing capacity, and bed space.
The euphemistically named Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program is another expanding practice of migrant containment and imprisonment, a form of house arrest that expands detention beyond the physical walls of the prison. ATD, otherwise known as the “Prison Without Walls,” was created in 2002 by Congressional mandate. It involves electronic monitoring, ankle shackles, mandatory curfews, unannounced home inspections by security forces, and other forms of containment. ATD is touted as a cost-effective way for DHS to accomplish its “goals of immigrant detention.” Proponents claim detaining people in “secure housing” costs an average of $166 per day per detainee, whereas the cost of ATD programs ranges from $0.30 to $14 per day per individual. Proponents also claim that ATD represents an improvement in detention conditions for thousands of immigrants who would otherwise be detained in jails and prisons. However, even a quick look at how this program is funded and implemented reveals that ATD has rolled out in addition to, and not as an alternative to, expanded lockup infrastructure. Federal funding for ATD comes on top of already ballooning funding for detention in lockup housing, instead of being a re-allocation or an alternative to it, as promoters would have us believe. Additionally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only targets for ATD those immigrants “whose detention is not required by statute, who present a low risk of flight, and who pose no danger to the community.”2 Thus, those pushed into ATD would not have otherwise been detained. Detention Watch Network calls this an alternative form of detention—we define it as an expanded form of the prison, which has produced its own distinct, booming market.
The Invisible Prison and the Prison Everywhere
Crucial to the government’s practice of migrant detention is a legal fallacy that defines “detention” as a form of captivity that is not imprisonment. A detention center is a prison that is not a prison. The Supreme Court has found that migrants can be apprehended by force and confined “as part of the means necessary to give effect to the provisions for the exclusion or expulsion of aliens” who are to be held in custody “pending the inquiry into their true character and while arrangements were made for their deportation.” This preemptive incarceration constitutes an administrative measure, not punishment for a crime, and is therefore “not incarceration in a legal sense.”3
Immigration laws, detention, and deportation thus fall outside the criminal system and its provisions. This space outside allows exceptional opportunity to experiment with forms of captivity and surveillance without restrictions of due process. But while some cages are named prisons and some detention camps, while some captives are named criminals and some are named illegals, the criminal and immigration systems shape each other as well as serve the same political and social function. Criminalization, which has long subordinated Black communities, is being extended to immigrants. The ambiguous nature of migrant incarceration also alters the logic of incarceration and surveillance under the guise of securing the homeland. The immigrant is an experiment in non-personhood, resulting in new forms of the prison and new forms of state violence that in turn serve to shape the domestic penal system.
The “housing boom” is not just about market expansion and increased legal exclusion, it is also about how imprisonment as a form of “secure housing” is stretching over all social space.
When the prison is everywhere, it is also invisible as the new norm of social reality. Although we have focused on immigrant incarceration, this case study links to a much broader process of expanding, informationalizing, and generalizing the prison.
Housing a Movement in the Winnable Fight
“There are other means—with proven track records of being much less costly yet highly effective—to accomplish DHS’s goals of immigration detention.” 41 organizations—including the ACLU , American Immigration Lawyers Association , American Friends Service Committee , Detention Watch Network , National Immigrant Justice Center , National Immigration Forum , and National Immigration Law Center — signed onto this statement in a letter to Congress’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.4 As organizers within migrant justice movements, we hear these debates more often than we would like. At all levels of the political food chain—from Obama to NGOs that supposedly advocate on behalf of immigrants—the rhetoric of “cost-effective solutions” to the “immigration problem” has become the norm, reinforcing an ideological investment in market-based solutions for the problems.
When major human rights NGOs advocate for ATD in the name of improved detention conditions, should we accept that this is the lesser evil? When prison contractors lobby for ATD because it is a cost-effective form of incarceration, should we be glad that the state is saving money? What does it mean to have all these players at the same table?
The mainstream immigrant rights movement self-consciously and explicitly makes reference to being the new civil rights movement, while placing itself outside of—and sometimes at odds with—contemporary racial and economic justice struggles as well as current anti-prison organizing. This contradiction is evident in how the movement articulates identity and belonging in the effort to push back against the criminalization of immigrants, but not criminalization more fundamentally. The image of the “hardworking immigrant” is often implicitly and explicitly pitted against that of the “criminal” in a bid for acceptance and legitimacy, even while some of the language, tactics, and forms are directly borrowed from civil rights era struggles. In focusing on the winnable fight, the demand for a seat at the front of the bus has come to be in opposition to a demand for racial economic justice; promoting Deferred Action for some comes at the expense of accepting deportation of others; and advocating for electronic shackles replaces the demand for full legalization.
Building a New Home
There are many ways to lose your home to the market—you can be evicted, or you can have your home become a prison. There are many ways for an immigrant rights movement to lose its home—it can be repressed or it can become part of the political structure. Though, it may be considered unreasonable and divisive by mainstream organizations, we must challenge the legitimacy of detention itself—and of the legal construct of citizenship on which it is based.
Displaced, made to appear always out of place, the migrant is assigned by the law of the market to secure housing in all its forms. The cost-effective solution to worker mobility is captive workers, flexibly tethered, whose location can be re-tuned tactically to market advantage. Can we build a border abolition movement, one that seeks to abolish not simply the border but citizenship itself— with its corresponding displaced, tethered and exploited populations?
Let’s make these questions specific and local by referring to lessons learned during the fight to stop the Crete detention center. The No Name Collective , Moratorium on Deportations Campaign (MDC) and Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission came together to challenge the legitimacy of migrant detention not by advocating for “hardworking immigrants” in opposition to those labeled as criminals, but instead by placing detention within a history of mass incarceration. The campaign explicitly defined citizenship as a pretext for capitalizing on the lives of displaced people and opened up discussions about how citizenship relates to other mechanisms that create unequal and exploitable populations. As it began building relationships with anti-prison and anti-war groups, as well as opening up more surprising solidarities with healing justice organizing, the campaign escalated into a massive sit-in in front of DHS headquarters in downtown Chicago.
As we write, grassroots groups are once again building resistance to a possible new detention center in Joliet. Although it is too soon to tell how this effort will evolve, the stakes are high not only in resisting this specific detention center, but in creating a new foundation, a new home for a migrant justice movement. ◊
For more information and to contribute to this effort, please see www.moratoriumondeportations.org.
1. The legislative framework for the current expansion can be traced to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996, which increased the number of people subject to detention, expanded “crimes” for which permanent residents and other noncitizens could lose their status, and set a new framework for the undue process that characterizes immigrant incarceration. Congress defines “aggravated felony” for the purposes of immigration law with an expanding list that currently includes shoplifting with suspended sentence of one year, pleading guilty to assault such as pulling someone’s hair, and check fraud. Such an expansive definition allows politicians to inflate the numbers of the “worst of the worst” who are supposedly being deported, and allows President Obama to equate a record high number of deportations with securing the Homeland.
2. Department of Homeland Security. “ICE Factsheet,” “Alternatives to Detention for ICE Detainees.” Last modified October 23, 2009. http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/factsheets/alternativestodetention. htm
3. The Supreme Court ruling in Wong Wing v. United States (1896) clarifies provisions first established in Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893) that ‘‘The order of deportation is not a punishment for crime…but a method of enforcing the return to his own country of an alien.”
4. “Cut costly immigration detention spending,” December 21, 2011, a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. http://www.aclu. org/files/assets/coalition_letter_to_joint_select_ committee_re_dhs_detention_spending.pdf.