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Faculty Q&A: The state of migrant detention

‘We need to abandon the idea that immigrants are criminals,' says UCLA's Cecilia Menjívar.

Faculty Q&A: The state of migrant detention

June 17, 2018. Ursula detention facility in McAllen, Texas. (Photo: Custom and Border Protection via Wikimedia Commons; cropped.) Public domain.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, February 11, 2021 — U.S. policies governing the detainment and treatment of undocumented migrants are expected to change significantly under President Joe Biden.

Prof. Cecilia Menjívar. (Photo courtesy of UCLA Latin Policy & Politics Initiative.) To understand the issues at stake, we spoke with Cecilia Menjívar, UCLA’s Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Professor of Sociology, and a faculty member of the unviersity’s Center for the Study of International Migration, Latin American Institute and Latin Policy & Politics Initiative. She is currently president-elect of the American Sociological Association.

Prof. Menjívar’s research focuses on the structural roots of inequality and the role of the state, largely in relation to Central American immigrants in the U.S. and gender-based violence in Central America.

Her book chapter, “Two Decades of Constructing Immigrants as Criminals” (co-authored with Andrea Gómez Cervantes and Daniel Alvord) in the Routledge Handbook on Immigration, and article, “‘Humane’ Immigration Enforcement and Latina Immigrants in the Detention Complex” in Feminist Criminology (co-authored with Andrea Gómez Cervantes and William Staples), address the issues discussed below in detail.

How did migrant detention become such a large-scale policy in the U.S.?

It’s a much longer history than most people understand. Migrant detention actually began under President Carter. At the time, it was specifically targeted to keep Cuban asylum seekers in one location, so it was relatively contained.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, many Central American asylum seekers, including minors fleeing the violence of civil wars, ended up in detention. Detention facilities expanded under President Clinton, after he signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRAIRA, in 1996.

Under the Obama administration, more people were actually deported than detained, although that administration built the first family detention facilities for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

During the Trump administration, there was a switch: More people were placed in detention than deported, and families began to be separated at the border.

July 14, 2019. Migrants detained at the Ursula detention center in McAllen, Texas, as documented during a visit by
U.S. Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA). (Photo: Jackie Spier via Wikimedia Commons; cropped.) Public domain.

What is the justification for detaining immigrants?

The IIRAIRA really began the criminalization of immigrants. Each successive administration after Clinton amplified the categories of crimes for which immigrants could be deported, to the point that during the Obama administration, the list included over 20 different categories of crimes.

What made immigrants deportable is that many offenses that are not felonies for U.S. citizens were reclassified as felonies for immigrants. The twin processes of deportation and criminalization continued to expand. Essentially, we started to deport people by accusing them of crimes.

Deportations of undocumented migrants went relatively unchecked during Obama’s first term. During his second term, migrants with criminal offenses were prioritized for deportation, but this included those charged with felonies for reentering the country after being deported.

By the time Trump was elected, the legal infrastructure and the tools used to surveil and categorize immigrants as criminals were already there — his administration just had to build on them. Of course, the Trump administration amplified the legal infrastructure significantly — with people being targeted for deportation for such “crimes” as unpaid parking tickets or crossing the border to request asylum.

Detention facilities were significantly expanded under his presidency, following the same model adopted by previous administrations: contracting with private companies to handle most immigrant detentions, as well as so-called alternatives to detention programs.

November 16, 2018. ICE detention center in Eloy, AZ. (Photo: Peg Hunter via Flickr; cropPed). CC BY-NC 2.0.

Can you speak about the reported abuses of migrants and asylum seekers in U.S. detention facilities under the Trump administration?

The abuses have been very shocking. You have a combination of an extremely vulnerable population and the experience of abuse. For instance, it’s common for migrants to be detained in very cold rooms. They are given Mylar blankets, sleep on the floor and don’t receive proper food. Many detainees with medical conditions are not provided medical care, and some have died; many have had needed medications withheld.

So you have physical conditions that can make people sick, and make others even more sick than they were. Then you have the anguish created by the trauma of separating people from their families — U.S.-born children may remain home, while undocumented spouses and children are typically detained in different locations — and a lack of information about what’s going to happen to them.

The uncertainty — people not knowing when they’ll be able leave detention — is agonizing. These immigrants have rights, but given these conditions, often they don’t know that. It’s difficult for them to establish contact with legal professionals who could help them, too. The conditions are worse than those in prison, causing many people to prefer to be deported rather than endure detention.

These are not isolated conditions: this is how detention facilities are run. I think this is in part due to the rationale for putting people into detention: immigrants are defined as criminals.

Among women detainees, we see a range of gender-based and sexual abuse. Although the unauthorized hysterectomies that allegedly occurred in a Georgia detention center (Spanish language) may sound like an extreme example, they are indicative of the laxity and culture of detainment facilities, as well as the lack of will to conduct oversight of these facilities.

June 2019. Overcrowded conditions in detention facility in Weslaco, Texas. (Photo: Department of
Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General via Wikimedia Commons
; cropped.) Public domain.

What kind of changes would you recommend in U.S. migrant detention policies?

We need to abandon the idea that immigrants are criminals and return to a policy where people aren’t detained. At the very least, we need to scale the current system way, way back and avoid long-term, indeterminate detention.

Detention is also very costly. I don’t know that the culture of current detention facilities can be changed unless they’re brought under actual oversight. Even when oversight is mandated, budgets rarely provide funds for sufficient inspection officers.

I’d also like to see the suspension of immigrant apprehensions inside the country, which create so much anxiety and fear among undocumented immigrants, those with legal status, and U.S.-born citizens with ties to immigrants alike. Fear is making entire families sick, mentally and physically. This amplified interior enforcement is cruel.

Also, the U.S. media could improve its reporting on immigration matters. Media coverage exposes what is happening to immigrants, but if reporting fails to provide needed context and explanation — for example, when broadcasting images of people being taken into custody in handcuffs — it perpetuates images of immigrants as criminals.

July 26, 2020. EU humanitarian aid project fights hunger among rural indigenous Guatemalans by providing families
approximately two months-worth of food. (Photo: © European Union/ S. Billy via Flickr, 2020; cropped). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Can you explain why so many people are migrating from Central American countries and the kind of local policies needed to curb migrant flows?

To clarify, undocumented migrants currently trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico are not just from Central America, but from many other countries — from Haiti to China to India. Undocumented immigration from Mexico, meanwhile, is very low.

We have to keep in mind the historical background of Central American countries — and the role the U.S. played in the conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s — to make sense of what is happening today. The conditions we see now in Central America didn’t just happen overnight.

Even after civil wars and armed conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala came to an end in the 1990s, a violent, militarized legacy permeated these societies. Honduras also became militarized during the conflicts because it was a conduit for U.S. military training and military aid in the region.

Thirty years later, we have an explosive combination of very weak economies, increased inequality and flourishing crime networks in these countries. Their governments have failed to create the infrastructures needed to lessen inequality and create sources of dignified employment for most people. People cannot earn decent wages or access education, health and basic social services. Criminal networks — both local gangs and more sophisticated, more powerful drug trafficking networks — are making life unlivable for many residents.

Many people in the region feel they have nothing else to lose because they will not survive in their countries. So they migrate.

I believe the region needs a multi-pronged approach. The U.S. needs to stop giving aid to Central American governments that are going to misuse it. Instead, the U.S. needs to spend time identifying the kinds of organizations and other ethical entities that could be supported to create decent forms of employment for most people. Not low-wage manufacturing jobs, but dignified sources of employment that provide rights and benefits to workers so that they won’t feel the need to abandon their families.

Another major need is integrating gang members back into the economies of these countries by providing them good employment and real opportunities for reinsertion into society. Many churches work on “reforming” gang members by focusing on spiritual salvation, but this approach does not address the root causes of gang members’ predicament. In addition, these governments and societies need to overcome an approach to gangs that focuses on punishment.

All this requires new thinking in order to happen, but the United States has the financial power to help change things in the region.