Lost in detention, 1 million deported and no justice

A broken immigration system including controversial policies like Secure Communities, rampant abuses in private detention facilities and a record number of deportations were investigated in a PBS Frontline documentary that aired this week on national television.

“Lost in Detention,” was based on a yearlong investigation of immigration enforcement by NPR correspondent Maria Hinojosa.

More than a million immigrants have been deported under the Obama administration, the largest total during any administration in U.S. history. Thousands of families continue to be separated, including the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands forced to live in subhuman conditions with no legal rights or protections. 

Critics in the PBS film note Washington has been unable to enact new immigration reform legislation for 20 years. In the absence of real comprehensive reform, the Obama administration is essentially left with “enforcement on steroids,” they say.

Secure Communities, the ICE program that collaborates with local law enforcement to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, was also examined. This program continually oversteps is initial mandate to deport only the “worst of the worst,” and creates problems for local police and the communities they serve. Many claim the program also invites racial profiling. 

Hinojosa interviewed the family of Roxana Garcia, whose five U.S.-born children have been without their mother since she was stopped for a minor traffic violation and eventually deported to Mexico. Garcia had been living in the U.S. for 15 years.

“I don’t understand how their mother could have been thrown out of the country because of a simple piece of paper,” said Antonio Arceo, Garcia’s husband, who is left to raise their children alone. “They are American citizens who are going to be productive for this country one day. How can you take away the most important pillar in their life, their mother?”

Frontline also uncovers evidence of consistent abuse and management cover-ups in U.S. immigration detention centers, including the large privately run facility at Willacy in south Texas.

Sources say detainees fall victim to rape and sexual abuse, racism, have to eat worm-infested and rotten food, suffer physical and psychological abuse and the denial of basic rights and other humiliating conditions.

Meanwhile the Obama administration announced today, Oct. 20, that the government will soon begin reviewing about 300,000 pending deportation cases. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress the day before that a small “pilot” review of immigration cases by Homeland security and Justice Department officials would begin within three weeks. Napolitano said she hopes to expand the review process and the administration will separate “high-priority” cases involving criminals it wants to deport from “low-priority” cases it will drop.

The news comes after the Obama administration announced this summer new deportation rules to halt the blanket deportation of every undocumented immigrant apprehended. Instead, DHS officials said they will look at each individual on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing violent offenders and other criminals, while closing the books on students and others considered non-threatening. 

However, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton released a report earlier this week showing nearly 400,000 individuals had been deported during the fiscal year ending in September. More than half (almost 55 percent) had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors during their stay, he said. The record number nearly doubles the number of criminal deportations under President George W. Bush in 2008.

On the other hand, critics highlight the other 45 percent as “collateral damage” that get caught in the web of the current broken immigration system.

Immigrant rights supporters argue too many are being swept up and deported for committing minor crimes like driving with broken taillights, polarized windows or expired driver’s licenses.

The recent number of deportations is “nothing to be proud of,” but instead represents “a symptom of our decades-long neglect in fixing the immigration system,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., to The Hill.

“We are deporting hundreds of thousands of people who came to this country to work, raise families, contribute to the economy, and want nothing more than to be allowed to live and work here legally,” said the congressman. “Setting a record for deportations and incurring the huge expense of sending so many people away is nothing to be proud of as a country.”

Gutierrez added, “The percentage of criminals among the deportees has risen during the Obama administration but let’s be clear. We are still deporting a large number of parents, workers, and others who pose no threat to this country and who contribute to our economic well-being as a nation.”

More needs to be done and too much is at stake, said Gutierrez.

“The announcement cannot be merely a pacifier for those of us crying out for justice and compassion,” he said. “It must actually stop the deportation of those with deep roots in our country like long-term residents, DREAM Act students, military families and immediate family of U.S. citizens.”

Photo: Detainees in the recreation area at the Willacy County Immigration Detention Center in Raymondville, Tex. (Joe Hermosa/Valley Morning Star/AP)



Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.