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Detention Watch Network Reviews Frontline’s “Lost in Detention”

November 10, 2011

In October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton announced that nearly 400,000 people were deported in fiscal year 2011, the highest total in the agency’s history. This staggering number has sparked increased outrage across the country, sowing deep doubts about the Obama Administration’s commitment to any meaningful changes to the U.S. immigration system, and setting the stage for the new PBS Frontline documentary, “Lost in Detention”

Divided into three parts, the documentary presents a welcome critical analysis of the various dimensions of Obama’s failed immigration policies, yet the limited one-hour format prevents the filmmakers from delving into the area of immigration detention in more depth, leaving the systemic nature of the problem and the driving forces behind the growth in detention untouched.

Through the Garcia family in Illinois, “Lost in Detention” exposes the human cost of Obama’s “enforcement-only” approach to immigration. In one of the opening scenes of the documentary, Roxana Garcia, an undocumented immigrant and mother of five American-born children, is jailed in a detention center and deported back to Mexico after a routine traffic violation. Antonio, her husband, spends days searching for his wife in vain at a number of local jails before discovering that she had been detained by ICE. Torn apart overnight, the Garcia family is faced with the heart-wrenching choice of going back to Mexico – a foreign country to their U.S.-born children – to reunite with Roxana, or remain in the U.S., leaving Antonio without his wife and their children without their mother.

The tragic story of the Garcia family is a product of the Secure Communities program, a federal immigration enforcement initiative that has come under fire by immigration advocates, local police chiefs and a number of state governors for not only failing to meet its own stated goals, but for undermining public safety, encouraging racial profiling, and feeding a broken immigration detention system. Secure Communities is one of many harsh enforcement programs, including 287g and the Criminal Alien Program, that are funneling people into the detention and deportation system and tearing apart countless families across the country.

In the second part of “Lost in Detention,” investigative journalist Maria Hinojosa highlights the severe human rights violations inside ICE detention centers, paying almost exclusive attention to conditions at the Willacy Detention Center in south Texas. From multiple cases of sexual assault to overt racism and physical abuse, the case of Willacy reflects the range of deplorable conditions faced by those caught up in the immigration detention system – a system that has grown dramatically in the past fifteen years.

Since 1996, the immigration detention system has gone from 70,000 people detained annually to about 400,000. The U.S. has the largest detention infrastructure in the world, comprised of more than 250 federal, state and private prisons and county jails, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion to taxpayers.

Yet the numbers only tell part of the story.

Conditions in immigration detention are notoriously inhumane. Stripped of their personal liberty, detained immigrants are subject to extreme physical and mental suffering without any of the standard legal protections afforded to other inmates, such as the right to due process or the right to an attorney. Immigrants in detention face poor medical care, physical and verbal abuse, interference with religious practice, solitary confinement, as well as the stress and anxiety born out of being separated from ones family. Over 126 people have died in immigration detention since 2003, many of which could have been prevented. Facilities are often located hundreds of miles from urban centers, and individuals are regularly sent to detention centers several states away from where they were originally detained, making family visitation and access to counsel nearly impossible.

Through its focus on Willacy, “Lost in Detention” puts a human face on the systematic abuse within the immigration detention system – interviewing formerly detained immigrants and employees at the detention center. But the documentary falls short in documenting the pervasiveness of the problems across the system and in analyzing some of the root causes behind the system’s expansion. In 1996, in violation of international law, President Bill Clinton signed legislation mandating the detention of broad categories of immigrants. Mandatory detention allows the government to lock up non-citizens, including legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S their entire lives, asylum seekers, torture survivors, single mothers, and the sick and elderly, without any consideration for whether detention is necessary or appropriate. This law, in tandem with another law enacted earlier in 1996, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, completely changed the way the U.S. deals with immigration. According to ICE, at least 60% of the 363,000 people detained in 2010 were subject to mandatory detention.

The documentary also fails to explore the critical role of the private prison industry in the explosive growth of immigration detention over the years. As people across the country continue to suffer the dire consequences of the economic crisis, private prison corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, Inc. reap huge rewards, recording record profits from a historic wave of mass incarceration in the United States that leaders in the industry actively promote. In its 2007 Security and Exchange Commission filing, CCA acknowledged: “We are dependent on government appropriations… The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.

Overall the film paints a bleak picture of a broken immigration system, underscoring the impact that increasing enforcement and detention has on immigrant families in the U.S., exposing instances of rampant abuse and overt racism by officials acting under federal authority. While Hinojosa and PBS do a great job at bringing to light some of the worst abuses in the immigration system, and in targeting Obama’s policies and programs, but “Lost in Detention” leaves the viewer with more questions than answers around the issue of detention and mass incarceration. The documentary serves as an important educational tool that should spark more in-depth coverage of immigration detention in future. Yet in order to fully reform the system and reduce our reliance on detention, we need to address root causes, repeal policies such as mandatory detention, and address the role of the private prison industry in profiting from immigration detention.

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