It’s been several weeks since the White House declared that it would be halting deportations of perhaps hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people, and it’s been more than a year since the Obama administration promised to ease up on deporting other immigrants who were deemed not to pose a security threat. But while those declarations have energized and given hope to advocates for immigrants’ rights, the numbers seem to paint a different picture of how, or how little, immigration policies have changed.
A scathing investigation by activists with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance sheds some light on impact of President Obama’s policy shifts on the ground: basically, the situation for many undocumented immigrants remains unchanged–detention, despair and uncertainty. So far, according to federal statistics, of all the deportation cases considered “low priority” or otherwise worthy of discretionary relief, just about 2 percent have dropped by immigration authorities.
The NIYA activists decided that the only way to get the real story was to go inside themselves. So they “infiltrated” a Florida detention center to investigate the conditions, and the legal prospects, that detained immigrants face. The findings are outrageous and yet unsurprising:
In order to challenge Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group, Inc. which owns the facility, we have placed multiple NIYA members inside Broward Transitional Center to find people who are eligible for deferred action, are low-priority cases. In this one facility alone, we have found over 100 cases of people who, according to the Obama policies of the past year, should be released back to their families.
According to the information given to us by the organizers inside, there are:
–people inside Broward who have pending application for a U Visa;
–More than a dozen DREAM Act eligible youth;
–Over 60 individuals with no criminal record or prior deportations, some detained as passengers in vehicles;
–More than 3-dozen cases in which individuals are still eligible for discretion despite previous contacts with the system;
–Several cases of immigrants in need of immediate medical care, including one individual with a blood clot in his leg and another with a bullet in the spine…
One of the activists, Viridiana Martinez, later spoke with Democracy Now‘s Renee Feltz about the people she encountered after turning herself in for detention:
Now that I’m inside, I have found several stories of women—because I’m in the women’s section—who have been held for over a year, some for months only, but they don’t belong here. They applied for the prosecutorial discretion announcement that was made last year by the Obama administration. And some of these women were, you know, either not even driving—they were passengers in a car—and they were questioned about their status. And now they are being held here for months.
She went on to say that the women who have languished in detention for months seem to be trapped in a system rigged by economic motivations:
And I think that this place is systematically set up to keep these women here—and on the men’s side, the men—because there’s money being made in this place. This place is owned by a company, GEO. And every time someone is detained, they are given money. Per person, I think the average is $170 per day. So, it’s definitely—you know, there’s definitely business and money and profit involved in all of this.
Martinez went on to discuss the deplorable conditions in the detention center, including awful food and a lack of basic health services. She also reported that a number of young people in detention should be eligible for the DREAM Act, and thus should qualify under the White House’s new deferred action policy for undocumented youth.
These observations reflect the growth of immigrant detention as an industry and as a tool for the federal government to “manage” a population of people criminalized by restrictionist policies and discriminatory police tactics. Research by the Sentencing Project reveals that from 2002 to 2011, for-profit immigration detention boomed as “harsher immigration enforcement and legislation led to a 59 percent increase in the number of detainees being held by the federal government.” And often the same companies that run the immigrant detention complex have also been harshly criticized for mismanagement and corruption linked to regular private prisons.
Another recent report on immigrant detention in New York, published by the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, Immigrant Defense Project, and Families for Freedom reveals the devastating impacts of anti-immigrant crackdowns carried out by local law enforcement with the support of federal authorities: the detention of tens of thousands of immigrants, and often, the separation of family members across long distances as people are transferred to faraway facilities.
Ultimately, youth like Martinez are counted among the relatively “lucky” ones. As a young, educated DREAM Activist, she’s in a safer position to engage in protest actions and risk detention. Nonetheless, her actions speak to the ingenuity and determination of a youth-led movement for immigration justice. Those who can afford to go public with their struggle are representing their entire community, including all those who are locked up, silenced by fear, or lacking the resources to legally defend their families from a deportation order. The wave of youth activism we’ve seen in recent months, from DREAM Act protests to campaigns for parents facing deportation, is not just about their personal aspirations, but about solidarity across immigrant communities and respect for the sanctity of family bonds.
Martinez told Democracy Now!:
My family members know that I’m in here. I’m privileged. I mean, I grew up here. I know the language. You know, I have all of these things to my favor. And yet, you know, this whole—like deferred action thing and the fact that I’m a DREAMer, but there are so many people in here that, you know, are not in that situation, that, you know, they’re here alone with their three kids, and they got picked up, and their kids are, you know, at home by themselves, you know, and the neighbor had to be called to go take care of them when they got detained. The way I feel is I acknowledge the many advantages that I have, and I think because of that is, you know, what literally encourages me to be here and be able to, you know, to put myself in this situation, because I know that at the end of the day I’m safe. But there are so many other people that are not in the same position, and they need help, and they need support.
And this is what—you know, what our movement has taught us, the undocumented youth movement, is we look out for each other. And that’s what we have, and that’s what we’re going to do.
Navigating between the inside and the outside, undocumented youth activists have a special place at the helm of the movement. They’re marginalized by their lack of legal status, but they possess the political and media savvy to fight on behalf of immigrants everywhere, by liberating their stories.