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It’s time for the United States to invest in communities, not jails!

The National Immigrant Justice Center's (NIJC) recent report, A Better Way, calls on the United States to end the use of immigration detention and instead invest in community-based programs that support immigrants and their families while their immigration cases unfold. We are asking you to read the report and then talk about it with your co-workers, friends and family. Host a dinner party. Make the report required reading for your book club. This guide will help facilitate these important conversations.

The word “crisis” pops up daily in national press coverage of immigration in the United States. The administration attempts to paint this crisis as one involving uncontrolled migration flows, invoking hateful rhetoric to portray immigrants as an existential threat to the nation’s well-being. At NIJC, we see a very different kind of crisis. We see community members plucked from their homes in pre-dawn raids and carted away to remote immigration jails. We see asylum-seeking mothers with babies in their arms, turned away from our border and derided by the president for doing nothing more than seeking safety.

In recent decades, the United States government has embraced enforcement as the cornerstone of its immigration policy. Under the Trump administration, the incarceration of immigrants during their case proceedings has become so common place that politicians across the political spectrum frequently fail even to acknowledge that there is any alternative to a jail cell for arriving asylum seekers and immigrants facing deportation. Today, tens of thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants suffer behind bars, far from their loved ones.

Here’s where you come in. We need you to help us get the word out that there is a better way. Community-based initiatives that support immigrants during case adjudication present a cheaper, more effective, and more compassionate alternative to detention.

Here are answers to some questions you might ask as you take on the challenge of raising awareness and talking to colleagues and friends about better alternatives to mass incarceration:

1.  It seems like the United States’ immigration laws and policies are broken in many ways, and that solutions are complex. How do alternatives to detention fit into the bigger picture?

United States immigration law is overly punitive, compounded by decades of policy changes that have built up the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement apparatus without investing in meaningful programs to create a functioning and independent immigration court system, support immigrant communities, and ensure immigrants’ access to legal and social services. We encourage you to take a look at NIJC’s Ten Principles toward a Just Approach to Migration Policy, which recommends a holistic approach to migration management grounded in family unity and community wholeness, religious freedom and racial justice, and equal access to justice and protection. Abandoning the use of detention in favor of community-based programming is a critical part of such an approach.


2.  Doesn’t the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) just need more resources to provide proper care to asylum-seeking families arriving at the border?

No. This year DHS is receiving more than $25 billion in taxpayer dollars, an historically unprecedented high. This number makes DHS the biggest federal law enforcement agency by far; in comparison, in 2019 the Federal Bureau of Investigations is funded at $9.2 billion and the Drug Enforcement Administration at $2.3 billion. Since DHS was created in 2003, its funding for Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) budget has nearly tripled and funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has more than doubled. Tragically, the United States government has proven time and time again that it will consistently choose to invest its dollars in jails and enforcement operations, failing to even consider investing in programs to support immigrant communities in the United States or asylum-seeking families fleeing violence in Central America.

NIJC regularly calls on Congress to cut DHS’s detention and enforcement budgets. Instead, the agency should be putting money toward smart and effective investments that address the root causes of immigration and in community support for asylum seekers and immigrants while their cases go through the immigration court system. NIJC recently joined more than 30 civil rights and faith organizations in creating a framework of five investments the United States could make today to respond to the humanitarian crisis on the border in a humane way. Again, developing community-based alternatives to detention is a central component part.

3.  How can I learn more about the harms caused by the immigration detention system?

DHS’s detention system is massive, comprised of more than two hundred privately run prisons and county jails that deprive tens of thousands of immigrants of their liberty each day. Foundational human rights principles such as due process, family unity, and bodily integrity are anathema to the immigration detention system. Appended to NIJC's A Better Way report is a bibliography of recent reports documenting the human rights abuses and corruption endemic to immigration detention. These reports document that immigrants in detention are regularly denied sufficient food and medical care, verbally and physically harassed and abused, and stripped of due process protections during their immigration court proceedings.

DHS is notoriously secretive with even the most basic detention-related information and data. Over the past year, however, NIJC has published an analysis of the most recently released information about the nature and scope of the system. We also documented DHS’s manipulation of the appropriations process to recklessly expand the system beyond congressionally imposed budget requirements.

4.  Has the United States always incarcerated immigrants during case processing?

No. Prior to the 1980s, the United States government rarely jailed individuals for alleged violations of the civil immigration code. This changed in the late 1980s, and the use of detention increased significantly after the government authorized the indefinite detention of Haitian asylum seekers at Guantanamo Bay in 1991, claiming a need to control the movement of arriving refugees and migrants. Using many of the same structures that were fueling mass incarceration of communities of color across America, the United States started locking up immigrants at unprecedented levels. The immigration detention system quickly metastasized, fueled by profit and fear. The number of individuals locked up in immigration detention skyrocketed from an average of 7,000 per day in 1994 to more than 50,000 in 2019. A recent op-ed in The New York Times titled “America Didn’t Always Lock Up Immigrants” outlines exactly this historical context.

5.  How can I describe alternatives to detention in a way that isn’t too technical or confusing for those unfamiliar with immigration law and policy?

It’s all about community! Today, the United States relies on incarceration as its primary method of greeting and managing migration. But migration is a natural human experience, and does not need to be harshly controlled through the deprivation of liberty and forced deportations. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recommends against the use of immigration detention. We need to start conversations in our communities about what it would mean to welcome asylum seekers and immigrants into our communities as our neighbors. Throughout the world, non-profit organizations—often in partnerships with their governments—are operating community-based programs to support immigrants through their immigration case adjudications instead of resorting to incarceration. The United States is shamefully behind in developing such programming.

A Better Way provides three examples you can use to describe how a transition away from detention might look, including programs operating in Canada, Sweden, and right here in the United States in Chicago.

Community-based and community-supported alternative programming doesn’t just support immigrants, it also nourishes our communities by allowing us to learn about other cultures and experiences. We encourage you to talk with your friends and neighbors about what this type of opportunity and experience might mean to them.

6.  How can I lift up the voices of currently or formerly detained individuals when I speak to my friends and family about this report?

At the end of A Better Way is the testimony of an NIJC client named Izzie (pseudonym), and we strongly encourage ambassadors like you to share his testimony widely. Izzie is a scientist, elite tennis player, and dancer who fled violence he endured because of his sexual orientation. Although he won asylum in the United States, DHS jailed him for months while he pursued his claim. In his testimony he explains the scars he continues to carry from his time in immigration jail, scars that made his journey toward establishing a new life in the United States so much more challenging.

We also recommend exploring the Otay Mesa Detention Center Detainee Letter Collection, an online repository of letters from immigrants detained in a massive private prison in southern California providing their personal accounts of conditions in detention and the journeys that led them to seek safety in the United States.

Read NIJC's full report, A Better Way: Community-Based Programming as an Alternative to Immigrant Incarceration.

Heidi Altman is NIJC's director of policy.