Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Welcome to America
There's been a small flurry of stories recently about the detention of illegal immigrants, touched off in part by the death of a long-time New York resident after he was locked up for overstaying his visa years ago. (Democracy Now! also did a story on this case, which you can see here.) As the New York Times piece points out, there have a been a number of other deaths of detainees in recent years, which is not surprising considering the number of people the U.S. government currently has caged simply because they didn't satisfy the bureaucratic requirements for breathing American air.
According to the Detention Watch Network, we are incarcerating over 280,000 people a year at a cost of $1.2 billion as part of the crackdown on illegal immigration. Detainees often wind up in regular jails with the general prison population, and even in dedicated facilities they are sometimes subjected to brutal treatment. (Click here for some of the detainee stories compiled by Detention Watch Network. The Nashville Scene recently did a long piece on a private jailer, Corrections Corporation of America, which operates a notorious detention center for families in Texas. You can read that article here.)
Personally, I'm baffled by the popular outrage over illegal immigration. I just don't understand why people get so bent out of shape over the issue. The supposed threat of terrorism from undocumented or non-compliant aliens is laughable. It's true that the 9/11 hijackers exploited loopholes in the immigration system in order to stay in this country, but they were determined criminals who would have found a way around pretty much any regulations that could be created. It's insane to deny hundreds of thousands of people basic human rights because a tiny handful might be murderous fanatics. This is another example of the state marketing its abuse of power with the "We'll keep you safe" slogan. I'm not buying it. I don't understand why anybody else does.
The argument that immigrants have to be expelled because they're "stealing our jobs" is equally dubious. My friends who farm here in Tennessee would never hire undocumented immigrants, yet they find it almost impossible to hold onto American workers, even at a decent wage. Given the current downturn in the economy, Americans might become more interested in the kinds of jobs immigrants have been doing, but so far that doesn't seem to have happened. If and when it does, the issue should be protecting all workers' rights to decent conditions, not setting U.S. and immigrant workers against each other. All that will do is foster hatred and violence, and leave Americans slaving for the same lousy deal the immigrants currently get.
Regardless of how welcoming you think this country ought to be to immigrants, locking them up for months on end is unjust and expensive--but then again, why should they be treated any better than the natives? The truth is that all those jailed newcomers are getting a real taste of America. As of June 2007, there were about 2.3 million of our people behind bars. That's an enormous chunk of our population--disproportionately poor and minority--removed from the economy and the political process. (Incarcerated felons are denied the right to vote in almost every state. In some cases, they lose voting rights permanently.)
What it boils down to is that a staggering number of people in this country are rendered voiceless and invisible--and the rest of us are supposed to think it's being done for our benefit.
The Captivity is as Barbarous as the Crime, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1810s. Image from Web Gallery of Art.