Lost In Detention and the GOP Debate

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Last night, PBS’ hard-hitting investigative report show FRONTLINE premiered “Lost in Detention”, a thorough examination of the Obama administration’s harsh enforcement of broken immigration policy. It is a shocking account of a mass violation of human rights and the systematic abuse of a powerless population that is occurring deep below the radar of our national conversation.

There is an almost daily flood of stories coming out of the media that documents and shames the abuses of foreign governments on their own people. We are used to hearing about communist or authoritarian regimes turning on their own population- usually a disenfranchised minority- and using them in a political maneuver to procure political capital or control.Last night’s FRONTLINE report showed that it happens in America. Yet we are able to justify it by claiming immigrants surrendered their rights the moment they crossed into the country illegally. As if one could ever surrender the right to be treated as a human being, the right to justice, the right to dignity and respect.

When we talk about immigration we usually hear economic arguments for and against the presence of those who came to work without proper authorization. We throw around figures to claim they either do or don’t pay taxes. We yell at each other about the rule of law, and how it must be protected.Meanwhile, women are being sexually harassed. Men are being pummeled. Families are being separated and communities corroded by fear. Hidden from sight in the vast network of detention facilities spread across the country, the rights, dignity, and freedoms of hundreds of thousands of immigrants are being dissolved.

All because of political and bureaucratic pressures to “get tough” on immigration which trickle down until the immigrant pays the bill. Politicians don’t want to lose their positions of privilege and power so they demand the departments they fund achieve record enforcement goals. Departments in Washington don’t want to lose their funding so they privatize detention programs and start corralling mothers and fathers who have never committed a crime. Local officers don’t want to lose their jobs so they follow suit and start bringing in “collateral” detainees when they sweep through a neighborhood.
Immigrant activists have been pressing the White House to reverse this dangerous course, but have been stonewalled by a President that once promised to defend the rights of immigrants and the unity of their families. President Obama was elected into office on a message of hope, change, and a “yes we can” sentiment that promised to overcome obstacles and fight for reform. He promised to take that energy and apply it to immigration reform. It was a sharp contrast to the message coming from the administration’s spokesperson last night. Leaning on the obstructionism of the Republican party, Cecilia Munoz displayed how the White house has given up on alleviating the suffering of families torn apart by its senseless use of enforcement to reach arbitrary numerical goals. The disappointment in the Latino community was palpable, and will come back to bite the President in his reelection campaign.

And speaking of campaigns, last night’s documentary was not the only sad display of low moral standards. There was another sorry spectacle involving immigrants: the GOP debate. No one individual immigrant was featured, but as a group they were tossed across the stage as a political football, and then sacrificed on the altar of vicious politics as economic scapegoats. GOP candidatesRomney accused Perry of attracting “illegals” to the state of Texas, Perry accused Romney of employing “illegals” to work on his lawn, and Bachman said she would build an East Germany styled “double wall” to keep them out and revoke birthright citizenship. Herman Cain refused to answer whether he would indeed electrify the border fence so that it would kill people who attempted to cross, an idea he proposed at a rally in Tennessee.

Along with “terrorist”, “illegal” has become the most toxic word in our political lexicon. This rhetorical abuse, along with the “other” mentality it creates, paves the way for the abuse documented in the Frontline report. First, we begin by separating hard working immigrants into a separate class of “illegals”. Then we strip them of their humanity by criminalizing their presence on this soil. Then we justify their complete lack of rights by arguing they forfeited them when they crossed the border. And so they become subhuman, and our behavior towards them is no longer bound by the rules of morality and justice.

We need to reverse this trend immediately. The moral character of our nation depends on it. We need both a radical shift in our political discourse that preserves the dignity of hardworking immigrants and we need institutional changes that ensure enforcement is humane and in keeping with international standards and human rights.

Join the conversation PBS is hosting today at 1 PM with the show’s producers and stay in touch with LIRS by subscribing to this blog and our social media outlets. In the coming days we will be releasing a report that details some immediate changes that can be made to the detention system that will help protect immigrants from abuse and unnecessary detention while we try and find a path back towards reform. Learn more about our work with detention HERE and help us protect both the immigrants in our communities and the character of our nation.

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