I don’t own a TV and haven’t for years.  Some of my low-income immigrant neighbors—children in particular—are scandalized to discover that my wife and I don’t own a television set, and they’ve offered them to us as charitable gifts so many times that I’ve lost count.

Last Tuesday evening, though, I really wanted to watch TV, so I went over to a neighbor’s house—a wonderful family of asylees from Rwanda—and asked if they would mind if I watched TV.  There were two programs of particular interest.

The first program I watched was a documentary on PBS’ Frontline called “Lost in Detention.”  The program itself, which I strongly recommend that you view (it’s available online on-demand), was well-made, but it left me sick to my stomach with its investigative report into America’s immigrant detention system.

You see, the U.S. government detains about 32,000 people on any given day because of immigration violations.  Usually, these are people who are pending a court date that will, in most cases, lead to their deportation from the United States.  Because our immigration court system is dramatically over-burdened, some of these individuals are detained for more than a year.  This detention is ostensibly to ensure that the immigrants do not escape and avoid showing up for court, and to keep immigrants with histories of violent crime from harming others.

No one would argue against the idea that those who are a risk to public safety should be detained, but the reality is that only a tiny fraction of the individuals we detain in a given year—5.6% as of an October 2009 report from Immigration & Customs Enforcement—have been convicted of a violent offense.  And the reality is that, for the undocumented immigrant whose only offense is unlawful presence and working to support his family—whose detention very likely leaves a frightened family on their own, with US citizen children often forced to resort to public benefits that they did not need when their father was with them and working—there are much more affordable ways to ensure compliance.  Immigrants can be monitored with an irremovable ankle bracelet (and picked up immediately if they try to remove it or if they fail to show up for court) for as little as $10 per day; detention, on average, costs $122.

So why, particularly in a time of budget crisis, is our government using taxpayer dollars of about $1.7 billion per year to detain immigrants?  My suspicion is that part of the reason is the development of a disturbing “detention industrial complex.”  That $122 per night of taxpayer dollars that the federal government expends goes, in many cases, to private corporations which operate detention facilities on contract with the federal government.  When of the largest corrections corporations, GEO Corp, recently posted profits up 40%, an executive credited the windfall to “the continued growth in the criminal alien population.”  And, of course, it is in these corporations’ economic interest to influence policymakers to ensure that more and more people are detained: GEO spent $660,000 on lobbyists in 2010 and Corrections Corporation of America spent $970,000.  Collectively, the two corporations also made more than a million dollars in campaign contributions between 2009 and 2010.  Their “investment” in lobbying and contributions seems to have paid off: an NPR investigation found that one of these companies actually drafted the controversial legislation in Arizona, now law (though being held up by court challenges), that is likely to dramatically increase the number of immigrants being detained there.

Beyond the scandal of using scarce taxpayer dollars to separate immigrants from their families and the moral hazard of linking a profit incentive to increasing the number of people detained, Frontline’s documentary also exposed many allegations of abuse within these privately-operated detention facilities.  A Canadian woman, detained for months at a privately-operated facility in Texas, says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted; several other women made similar complaints: Freedom of Information Act requests reveal at least 185 allegations of sexual abuse of immigrants since 2007.  Others report verbal and physical abuse.

While some conservatives critique President Obama for being soft on immigration, the reality is that the current administration has been harder on undocumented immigrants than perhaps any in history: detention and deportation has increased dramatically under President Obama’s watch.  And while the public rhetoric has long been that Immigrations & Customs Enforcement is targeting criminals, Frontline exposed a leaked internal memo from February 2010 castigating ICE officers for failing to meet their “non-criminal” deportation goal.  Of the nearly 400,000 people deported in 2010 (an all-time record), just about half had no criminal conviction.  While President Obama’s statements on immigration have been mostly encouraging—much like most of what President Bush said before him—his Administration’s record is quite the opposite of the “hope” and “change” that inspired many who care about immigrants to vote for Mr. Obama.

If watching PBS’ Frontline documentary left me depressed, though, watching as much as I could stomach of the Republican Primary Debate in Las Vegas on CNN did nothing to cheer me.  Instead of offering an alternative, candidate after candidate sought to portray themselves as more harsh on illegal immigration than the others.  One candidate was asked about recent statements calling for a lethal, electrified fence at the border.  Not to be outdone, another called for a second layer of wall alongside that which we already have (one imagines that a triple-layer fence is the only way to up the ante).  Other candidates looked as though they might break into a fistfight as they accused one another back and forth of extending some small degree of dignity to “illegals.”  Nothing in the conversation suggested that these undocumented immigrants might be human beings, made in the image of God, who, though they had violated administrative law, were also hard-working  people striving to support the families that they love and, in the process, providing enormous economic benefit to our national economy.

We have come a long way—in the wrong direction—from 1980, when candidates in the Republican primary George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan interacted cordially, arguing that we should fix a broken immigration system in “sensitive” ways that recognized the impact of immigration on the economy, on families, and on our foreign policy.

If Tuesday night television left me depressed, though, I also am hopeful.  While what I see of our government—in both parties—leaves me somewhat sick to my stomach, I see a very different reality within the Church.  As I speak at churches, I find more and more that evangelical Christians are eager to embrace immigrants, both in interpersonal relationships and in just and compassionate public policies: the response to my talks at church is usually overwhelmingly positive.  Last weekend was a new highlight: the G92 conference at Cedarville University—a conservative Baptist college in rural Ohio—drew more than 1,000 students from twenty different colleges.  The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable as we were challenged, exhorted, and inspired by a range of Christian leaders to extend hospitality to the immigrants in our community and to seek just Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  I have no doubt that those students—with the help of the God who “loves immigrants” (Deuteronomy 10:18)—will help to lead the movement that forces our elected officials to think, talk, and act responsibly as they respond to the complexities of immigration.


Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.  His blogs appear here on Mondays. 

Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated. 

If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].

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