“Pretend that…” My niece had a favorite game when she was 4 that started with the words, “pretend that…” and usually ended up in some version of playing school or family. So let’s say you want to leave the Bay Area and go to another country. Pretend that in order to go you must present yourself to a government authority in that country. At the border you encounter untrained officers, tons of forms that need to be filled out, and eventually you will need to see a judge in order to get permission to stay. It can take a long time to complete all the steps. So in the meantime, with no due process, you are placed in a facility that operates very much like a prison. This prison is mismanaged in every way. Food, bedding, climate control, medical aid, space, anything you may need to function daily is scarce or not available at all. You may be housed here for weeks, months or even years.
This is the reality of more than 50,000 people a day seeking asylum in the US thanks to the policies of the department of Homeland Security which includes ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) manages the largest immigration detention system in the world and spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal enforcement agencies combined. The detention system captures and holds up to 500,000 immigrants a year.
Immigrants in detention are undocumented or documented, including people whose immigration status is not current, is expired or is under review. The US locks up survivors of torture, people seeking asylum, visa holders, people who have been granted the permanent right to live here, people who have lived here for years and may have American citizen spouses and children, individuals with mental health and medical conditions and other vulnerable groups including LGBTQ people, pregnant women and children.
Detention is not necessary to the immigration process. But according to ICE, over 70 percent of immigrants in detention are mandatorily detained, meaning their incarceration is automatic, without any kind of individualized assessment. There over 200 detention facilities in the US contracted by ICE, including state and local government-run jails and for-profit, private prisons owned and operated by US corporations, the biggest being GEO Group and CORE Civic. Over 81% of immigrant detainees are housed in private prisons. It is a corrupt web of inhumane, arbitrary treatment of people and profiteering. ICE routinely fails to provide adequate oversight and exercise meaningful consequences for facility failures to even meet ICE’s minimal detention standards. Meanwhile, ICE has failed to invest in far more humane, effective, and cost-efficient community-based alternatives to detention.
California has 7 private, for-profit prisons that house more than 4000 immigrants. 95% are asylum seekers. GEO Group donates tons of money to candidates in local campaigns. In the southern California city of Adelanto, GEO convinced the city manager in a backroom deal to terminate a contract that allowed for local government to have oversight rights in the private prison. There were many inconsistencies in putting the new contract through. The planning commissioner who attempted to point out the problems and failures to follow procedures was removed from office. Only one city council member opposed the new contract.
California began doing business with private prison companies in the 1980’s. (The feds already had contracted with private prisons in southern California). It was a failed experiment. In an attempt to end the use of private, for-profit detention, the CA legislature passed AB32 in 2019. The law was due to go into effect in January, 2020. Its main purpose is to put extreme limits on contracting with private prisons or housing people in private, for-profit prisons. In December 2019, ICE entered long-term contracts worth billions to them, just days before AB 32 was set to be enacted. The 15-year contracts included Adelanto and Mesa Verde, run by GEO Group; the Otay Mesa Detention Center, run by CoreCivic; and the Imperial Regional Detention Center, run by Management and Training Corporation (MTC).
GEO Group and the previous federal administration sued the state of California over AB32 in October 2020. A judge was not sympathetic and dismissed most of the lawsuit but Geo Group and the DOJ (Department of Justice) appealed to the 9th Circuit court. So far, the Biden administration has not committed to dropping the DOJ lawsuit. If dropped, this would greatly weaken the strength of GEO Group’s appeal and ability to pursue the lawsuit. The appeal is scheduled to be heard on June 7, 2021. Meanwhile the private prisons are still in operation.
Under the state sanctuary law passed in 2017, police and sheriffs can voluntarily turn people over to ICE but it is not required. ICE depends on this collaboration for the majority of their arrests. In June of this year, the VISION Act passed the CA Assembly by a large majority. The VISION Act will make it illegal for local and state law enforcement to collaborate with ICE. It now needs to pass the senate.
People in detention are leading the fight to abolish ICE. Prisoners held 49 hunger strikes across the country and organized work stoppages. Closing detentions centers has been shown to decrease ICE arrests. The federal government has cut contracts with for profit facilities in Georgia and Massachusetts.
Dignity Not Detention is a coalition of multiple organizations working to abolish immigrant prisons to free criminalized communities from incarceration in the state of California. They are calling for closures and an end to contracts with ICE. They want to see an economic transition from a carceral economy to a support system that invests in helping people who want to immigrate or stay in the US.
The US has for far too long held the record for the most people incarcerated in the world. Efforts to end immigrant detention, abolish ICE and ban for profit prison are just a small piece of this problem. Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, professor of geology and longtime prison abolitionist reminds us that ninety-two percent of people locked inside American prisons are held in publicly run, publicly funded facilities, and 99 percent of those in jail are in public jails. Abolition is a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for jobs, education, housing, health care elements required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the establishment of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how can we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”
It’s been almost twenty years since I played “Pretend that…” with my niece. It’s a good game. Pretend that there are no public prisons , no private prisons, no borders, no ICE, and no police. And make it so.