Law enforcement is in the business of dealing with insecurity. But the one thing that’s always secure about America’s law-enforcement system is the number of immigrants it imprisons each day. The government has written into law the number of non-citizens it seeks to deprive of freedom at any given moment: 34,000.
A study by Detention Watch Network (DWN) and Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) explores the social impacts of the perverse incentive of the so-called “lockup quota” of 34,000 designated “beds” for immigrant detainees. The system locks in a federal funding stream and sustains jobs, commercial contracts, and a political consensus around the need for ever more “border security.” So the detention industry banks on 34,000 bodies, culled from a bottomless supply of more than 11 million undocumented migrants, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police round up and funnel in potential deportees.
DWN and CCR argue that “Local lockup quotas that serve to protect the bottom line of private companies thus incentivize the imprisonment of immigrants.”
The yearly spending—about $2 billion for fiscal 2016—and the headcount are the two numbers that matter. The deportation machine has fueled the churn of warm bodies, which it prioritizes over concerns that other law enforcement systems must deal with like the actual charges against detainees, their due process rights, or questions of their safety or the public’s.
The system has been on overdrive recently as the Obama administration accelerated deportations of Central American refugees who have not qualified for asylum. The goal is to restore “border security” by speeding their re-exile to dangerous home countries.
Migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.
Abuse scandals regularly surface in immigrant detention centers, from allegations of sexual assault to the brutalization of transgender detainees. Though ICE has undertaken numerous reforms in recent years to enhance detainee health-care and regulatory oversight, a 2015 investigation of CCA facilities documented 32 deaths since 2004. Causes included cancer, cardiac arrest, and suicide. Many complain of being shunted into solitary confinement merely for protesting their conditions. Often victims of human rights violations in other countries are retraumatized in prolonged isolation. The social hardships of detention can diminish asylum prospects as they work through a labyrinthine legal bureaucracy.