Twenty years ago this week, President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMueller’s probe doesn't end with a bang, but with a whimper Mark Mellman: History’s judgment Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH MORE signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, ushering in an era of mass detention and deportation of immigrants. A few months later on September 30th, the President signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Together, these laws doubled the number of people in U.S. immigration detention from 8,500 each day in 1996 to 16,000 in 1998. Over the last two decades, the immigration detention population has increased fourfold to approximately 34,000 per day.

To mark the creation of these misguided laws, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) has released an anthology of poems and artwork from people impacted by immigration detention and their allies. While a pencil is not in itself political, the written word is a vehicle for spreading awareness, spurring reform, and healing ourselves and our communities.

In Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, Sylvester Owino, an asylum seeker from Kenya who spent nine years in U.S. immigration detention, explains the importance of poetry for the soul: “Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out, slowly, so slowly.” 

The 1996 laws required victims of persecution abroad to be immediately detained when claiming asylum at a U.S. port of entry, gave the U.S. government the ability to deport some lawful permanent residents, and took discretion away from judges to grant release to certain immigrants. The rapid increase in both the number of immigrants detained and the length of their detention gave rise to the expanded use of private contracting in immigration detention, bolstering America’s growing prison-industrial complex.

The immigration detention system is now a multi-billion dollar industry that enriches local governments and private prison corporations at taxpayer expense. The United States detains so many people not because it is necessary, but because it is profitable to do so.

The prevailing myth is that our current immigration detention system helps protect the United States.  In fact, the 1996 laws were born out of fear, following the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing. If the U.S. immigration detention system was constructed out of fear, then our only hope for ending this system is to counterbalance this fear with the truth: that our immigration detention system has failed everyone involved.

For example, it has failed Tina Shull, co-editor of the anthology, who writes about visiting her husband in detention: “My husband in blue scrubs picks up the telephone and our hands press together. I am sickly jealous: Our lawyer can touch him . . . I wear [my husbands’s] jacket through the New York summer, because it smells like him.”  Shull’s husband was eventually deported. 

It has failed Teka Gulema, whose painted portrait is featured in the anthology.  Gulema died, alone, in an Alabama hospital after contracting an infection at the Etowah County Detention Center.  U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) conveniently “released” him from immigration detention at the hospital so the agency would not have to report his death to Congress.  Three years before his death, Gulema wrote the following to CIVIC in a letter: "The ICE staff should not wait until other detainees die in the Etowah County Jail from poor medical service. The ICS officials must ensure that every individual detainee does not suffer or die unnecessarily." It is tragic that Gulem’s fears were realized by his own early demise.

The cost of our current immigration detention system in both dollars and lives cannot be justified. There are community-run alternatives to detention that are practical and have been proven effective.  They are cheaper than detention, more humane, and demonstrate that communities nationwide can build effective pathways away from our punitive immigration detention system.  The prospect of building a country aligned with our values as a land of liberty that treats everyone with dignity is not out of reach.

It is time to show humanity a better version of itself.  It is time to repeal the 1996 laws and defund immigration detention.  Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders is an effort to liberate our country’s political imagination and to remind us all of our capacity for deep compassion for our fellow human beings.


Fialho and Mansfield are the co-founders and co-executive directors of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).