Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The wilderness of immigration detention

As regular followers of Urban Wilderness well know, I typically write about natural places in urban areas near my home or wherever I travel. This post is atypical as it deals with a primarily human issue (although I could easily make a case that the issues I typically write about relating to urban wilderness also are human ones.)

Unfortunately, the wilderness metaphor applies to the immigrant experience on multiple levels – and it’s not always metaphorical. The still expanding wall along the Mexican border has forced migrants to cross over through truly fearsome and too often fatal wilderness areas. That they keep coming despite this testifies to desperation that I can’t even imagine.

I’ve just returned home from a week in Phoenix, ground zero in the struggle for – and against – immigration reform and immigrant rights. I went to Phoenix to bear witness to this struggle, to protest the draconian policies that have been enacted since the passage of SB 1070, to be in solidarity with the victims of these oppressive policies, and – perhaps most importantly – to listen to their stories.

As I say in the letter-to-the-editor that follows, I don’t believe that anyone of any political persuasion could listen to the often heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting personal stories and not be moved to compassion at their plight and outrage at the injustice of the system we’ve set in motion with laws like SB 1070. I’m not talking about whether or not undocumented immigrants should or shouldn’t be deported, although that’s an issue worthy of its own post. I’m talking about the unconscionably dehumanizing and degrading conditions to which they are subjected.

There is no righteous or moral justification for such treatment of people – in any circumstances! I cannot believe that, if they knew about them, even those who agree undocumented people should be deported would consent to the concentration camp privations that detainees routinely must endure. The only reason it can go on is because the vast majority of good people in this country do not know what’s really happening. We would not – we do not – treat animals the way people are being treated in the detention system. For too many deportation is far worse than being sent back to their home countries. It is a bureaucratic jungle, a wilderness of incarceration, and a nightmare of intolerable conditions.

Over 3,500 others joined me in Phoenix for the annual Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly, this year known as Justice GA. The UUA partnered with many local organizations, which are listed at the end. To learn more about the issues please follow the links to their websites.

Dear Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

One of the biggest news stories of the week is the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the most controversial portion of Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070, a provision that requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they stop if they suspect the person of lacking authorization to be in the U.S. Rights organizations and other opponents maintain that this provision encourages racial profiling.

The other provisions of the state law were struck down for usurping the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration policies.

However, there is a hidden side to this issue that, were it more widely known, ought to inspire universal outrage, no matter your political persuasion or how you stand on SB 1070. Thousands of people who have been caught up in the immigration enforcement system have been subjected routinely to cruel and inhuman treatment. They are dehumanized, deprived of food, water, and hygienic facilities, and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. In the past year alone 120 people who had committed no crime other than being undocumented died while in the custody of our government.

If the scope of this situation and severity of the conditions in immigration detention centers were common knowledge it would be a national disgrace on a par with the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Furthermore, parents are frequently and indiscriminately separated from their children. From January - June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 46,486 undocumented parents from children who are U.S. citizens. Many of the children, too young to understand what has happened, will be traumatized for life.

The U.S. detains over 280,000 people per year at an annual cost of $1.2 billion to taxpayers. Much of this money goes to a private prison industry whose primary goal is to maximize profits for shareholders, not to maintain human rights or provide humane treatment.

The U.S. Constitution grants criminals, including immigrants, important rights, but immigrants who have committed no crimes except the civil misdemeanor of being undocumented are afforded none of these protections. In other words, immigrants who have committed serious crimes have more rights than the vast majority who have committed no crimes. Many of these people have lived in the U.S. for many years, worked hard, and raised families. This is a travesty of justice, unbecoming of a great nation and must change. All persons who are arrested or detained should be provided with the same constitutional and human rights protections and treated with decency and dignity.

The federal government must act to end human rights abuses, close down inhumane detention centers, and discourage racial profiling.

I believe that at heart Americans are an essentially good and moral people. I further believe that if the truly horrifying stories of the poor people in our country’s shadowy immigrant enforcement and detention system were heard then we would rise up as a moral people and demand an end to the injustice and cruelty that is being perpetrated in our name and at our expense. The soul of our nation is at stake.

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Holder,

I have traveled to Phoenix, AZ from my home in Wisconsin to protest human rights abuses of migrants and racial profiling of minorities.

Migrants whose only crime is the misdemeanor of being undocumented are being held in cruel and inhuman conditions in the Maricopa County "Tent City" detention center.

Please put an end to this shameful and un-American situation by closing down Tent City, by placing the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in receivership, and by cutting off the power of ICE to cruelly separate families.

No one is made safer by policies that punish otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants, who often work long hours in jobs that no one else wants.

I want my federal government to implement laws and policies that treat all people humanely, keep families together, and enable undocumented workers to obtain legal residency.

If you would like to join me by writing to the president and attorney general, here are the email addresses:

President Obama:
Attorney General Holder:

Uncharacteristically, I have no pictures of GA, but you can see the official ones on the GA flickr page.

UUA partner organizations working for human rights:

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