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Each day, over 30,000 people are housed within detention centers across the United States. The New York-based Detention Watch Network says that last year, over 276,000 immigrants were deported.

Deportations have increased significantly since 1996, when laws became much more punitive. A criminal charge results in jail time and guarantees deportation of non-citizen immigrants, regardless of legal status and family ties.

Attempts to re-haul the US immigration system were made in 2006. Since that effort failed, no comprehensive reform has made it to the table, and the pressure has been stepped up on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to ramp up its deportation activities.

Story Transcript

REKHA VISWANATHAN: US immigrant detention and deportation procedures are coming under harsh scrutiny. The Washington Post reported last week that more than 250 cases of forcible drugging of deportees have been identified since Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, was given the job of managing the deportations in 2003. Late last month, a group of former immigrants and advocates filed a lawsuit to call attention to poor conditions within detention centers across the US. Standards of treatment are currently unenforceable, as a majority of detainees are processed through any number of private contractors or local jails. Each day, over 30,000 people are held within detention centers. The New York-based Detention Watch Network says that last year over 276,000 immigrants were deported.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, SENIOR ATTORNEY, CATHOLIC LEGAL IMMIGRATION NETWORK: Mexicans are by far the largest, every year, group of people who are deported from the United States, mostly because of the proximity of Mexico to the United States, and also because for a large number of Mexicans there is no accepted lawful mechanism for them to get papers to come to the United States.

VISWANATHAN: Sullivan also added that workplace raids have become commonplace since 2006, when plans to rehaul US immigration law petered out. Through the raids, thousands are detained and deported regardless of longstanding family and community ties.

SULLIVAN: One in five children is member of a family with immigrants. A lot of families are of mixed status. It can have severe not only psychological impacts, but also economic impacts.

VISWANATHAN: Sergia Santibanez was arrested after being involved in a car accident. She’d been driving her undocumented immigrant friends in her car and was later charged with aggravated felony for that act.

LUISSANA SANTIBANEZ, IMMIGRANT RIGHTS COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: My mom was a legal resident of this country for over 27 years. She received amnesty in the ’80s, but she has been here even before that. We could deal with her deportation, no matter how bad it is, you know, for us to be divided, because we’re—her children—are US citizens, we can go to the border and visit her. But when she was in detention, we were forced to see each other and talk with each other through Plexiglas.

VISWANATHAN: Following her four-month jail term, Sergia was taken into custody by ICE for over a year and then deported. While in the Houston processing center, she became depressed and was separated from other detainees.

SANTIBANEZ: She always talked to me privately about how horrible the conditions were and how miserable she was. And she talked frequently about guards dehumanizing them, telling them that they didn’t have the right to anything. My mom was just so tired of being in detention that she was just like, “I just want to be free. If it means accepting my deportation, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

ANDREA BLACK, COORDINATOR OF THE DETENTION WATCH NETWORK: There are often a lot of problems. Some of it is just very basic. The food can be very poor. I mean, there have been instances of people getting sick, maggots in the food, things like that. And there have been some recent news reports about very bad, poor medical conditions. The phones don’t work, there’s no legal materials in the library, and this is really significant because people have no right to an attorney

SANTIBANEZ: My family had to beg for money to get a lawyer. We had to borrow money. In fact, we’re still paying our relatives off.

BLACK: Most people, over 84 percent, go through unrepresented.

VISWANATHAN: According to Human Rights Watch, there has been at least a 240 percent rise in deportations on criminal grounds since 1996, when laws became significantly more punitive. A criminal charge results in jail time and guarantees deportation of non-citizen immigrants, regardless of legal status.

SANTIBANEZ: There’s this category of crimes considered to be aggravated felonies, which includes misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting, it used to be even possession of marijuana. And most of the crimes, they’re neither aggravated nor felonies, but the immigration law sometimes considers them to be. And so if you for any reason [are] convicted of any of those crimes, immigration has the right to put a detainer on you and [inaudible] deportation proceedings. It’s almost as if prison has become the only solution for this country to deal with its social problems.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Luissana Santibanez is a SOROS Justice Fellowship grantee and an immigrant rights community organizer. She works with Texans United for Families, a coalition that aims to close down a privately owned immigrant detention center where children and parents are incarcerated for non-criminal immigration violations. Santibañez is the co-founder of Madres en Defensa de la Educacion de Nuestras/os Hijas/os. She became involved in immigration detention advocacy after her mother was detained at a Corrections Corporation of America center in Houston, Texas.

Kathleen Sullivan is the Detention Project Manager and Senior Attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., CLINIC. CLINIC assists groups across the country with improving their practice of immigration law and client representation. The network of organizations supported by CLINIC serves 400,000 low-income immigrants each year.

Andrea Black is the Coordinator of the Detention Watch Network, a coalition of groups around the nation working to reform US detention and deportation policies. The Detention Watch Network believes that detention should be used only as a last resort by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.