“Lost in detention”: The criminalization of immigration

by Melanie Wilmoth

Earlier this week, PBS Frontline aired its documentary “Lost in Detention.” The documentary takes a hard look at the broken U.S. immigration system and the resulting increase in the number of detained and deported immigrants.

Under the Obama Administration, over 400,000 immigrants were detained and deported this year alone (which is a significantly higher number of deportations than in previous administrations). As Frontline suggests, much of this increase in detention and deportation is a result of Secure Communities, a partnership between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI that uses fingerprint data to track criminal immigrants. Secure Communities allegedly aids in the deportation of immigrants who have committed serious crimes and, thus, pose a threat to public safety. According to ICE, Secure Communities prioritizes “the removal of individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and other factors.”

However, the Secure Communities program has reached far beyond its stated purpose. Since its implementation in 2008, Secure Communities has successfully broken up families and incited fear in immigrant communities. Thousands of individuals, many of whom are non-criminals, U.S. citizens, and parents of children who are U.S. citizens, have been arrested. In addition, Latinos have been disproportionately affected by Secure Communities, making up 93% of those arrested through the program.

After arrest, 83% of individuals are placed in detention centers. Punitive in nature, the 250 detention centers in the country warehouse immigrants in prison-like settings until deportation. Reports of abuse in these centers run rampant. 

“Lost in Detention” highlights one detention center in particular, the Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville, Texas. Known as “Tent City” due to the windowless Kevlar tents in which thousands of detainees are housed, Willacy is operated by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a private prison contractor. By interviewing former guards, staff, and detainees at Willacy, Frontline sheds light on the physical and sexual abuses that occur at the center.

These abuses have been going on for years with little (if any) action taken by ICE. A little over a year ago, I went on a trip to

Students protest outside of the Willacy County Processing Center.

Raymondville with several other students and advocates to protest the human and civil rights abuses going on at Tent City. Although we were met with extreme hostility by the guards, we did attract media attention and brought more public awareness to the issue.

Despite advocacy efforts by individuals and organizations, it seems that not much has changed at Willacy. With the U.S. looking to make Secure Communities a nation-wide program, the outlook is bleak on a national level as well.

Rather than expanding a flawed program and building more detention centers, we need meaningful action around immigration reform and thoughtful alternatives to detention. We must demand this if we are to make any kind of progress toward mending our broken immigration system.

“Lost in Detention” provides a great overview of the issues around immigrant detention and is definitely worth a watch. If you were not able to catch the documentary when it aired, you can view it on the PBS Frontline website here.

To end on a more promising note, I am going to leave you with this video by Detention Watch Network:

One thought on ““Lost in detention”: The criminalization of immigration

  1. These people are criminal they are breaking immigration law.
    Why do you expect America illegals differently.
    These people know when they come into the country and have families this is apt to happen. If they don’t want this to happen they should stay in their own country until they can enter this country legally .
    Look at the way Mexico handles illegals:
    Mexican Law on Immigration

    Foreigners with fake papers, or who enter the country under false pretenses, may be imprisoned:
    Foreigners with fake immigration papers may be fined or imprisoned. (Article 116)
    Foreigners who sign government documents “with a signature that is false or different from that which he normally uses” are subject to fine and imprisonment. (Article 116)
    Foreigners who fail to obey the rules will be fined, deported, and/or imprisoned as felons:
    Foreigners who fail to obey a deportation order are to be punished. (Article 117)
    Foreigners who are deported from Mexico and attempt to re-enter the country without authorization can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Article 118)
    Foreigners who violate the terms of their visa may be sentenced to up to six years in prison (Articles 119, 120 and 121). Foreigners who misrepresent the terms of their visa while in Mexico — such as working with out a permit — can also be imprisoned.
    Under Mexican law, illegal immigration is a felony. The General Law on Population says,
    “A penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of three hundred to five thousand pesos will be imposed on the foreigner who enters the country illegally.” (Article 123)

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