Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) recently compared the release by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of administrative detainees to Fidel Castro's 1980 "release of criminals" via the Port of Mariel to Key West and the United States.
The congressman's witty provocation suggests that he is ignorant of U.S. immigration and detention policy and of Cuba's human rights abuses.
Among the 125,000 Cubans who came here in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, there were, of course, "real" criminals. But Barletta seems blissfully unaware that Fidel Castro put Cubans in jail for political reasons and on trumped-up charges. A common "crime" among the Mariel Cubans was peligrosidad or "dangerousness." This was a code-word to justify the incarceration of people for being potentially counter-revolutionary, or gay, or otherwise "undesireable." Sometimes the "dangerousness" label simply provided cover for a local policeman to exercise arbitrary authority.
Since the Supreme Court decided the Zadvydas (2001) and Martinez (2005) cases, ICE is generally required to release detainees when it is impossible to deport them. Before those rulings, the immigration agency would "determine" that particular detainees who had long ago completed their sentences were still dangerous, or not remorseful enough, or too remorseful, or suicidal, or had no place to live: these are some of the reasons which immigration bureaucrats have used to justify their continued imprisonment of Cuban refugees. There were no appeals. There were no judges. In the year preceding the Martinez decision, thirty-three Cubans had been locked up "administratively" for fifteen years or more -- after completing their criminal sentences.
It's a system Castro would envy, and one which many Republicans would like to bring back. As immigration "reform" moves ahead, members are likely to introduce language meant to reverse the Zadvydas and Martinez rulings. Two years ago they tried with Rep. Lamar Smith's Keep Our Communities Safe Act, which would have authorized ICE to "to detain as long as necessary specified dangerous immigrants." The Immigration Policy Center said that Smith's law "would increase costs and do little to keep America safe." Bruce Einhorn, a former prosecutor and immigration judge, wrote in The Hill that it would result "in a system of indefinite detention for individuals who pose no danger to society."
In a word: peligrosidad.
Lawmakers are fond of such pseudo-legalistic labeling to convince the public that they are not merely transforming their prejudices into law. In proposals for indefinite detention you might hear the preferred term "specially dangerous." The similarly broad brushstroke of "criminal alien" is used to obscure the reality of the U.S. immigration detention regime and to hide the facts about the human beings it locks up (and, yes, sometimes releases).
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee (on which Barletta serves) has written a letter asking ICE Director John Morton for some basic information about those controversial detainees. McCaul wants to know, among other things, why they were detained in the first place, and for how long. Fair questions. But why hasn't the committee asked ICE for information about the other 31,000 prisoners who have not been released?
A spokesperson for the committee said in an email to reporters that filling "detention beds" will protect us from the Obama administration's "dangerous policies." Reps. McCaul, Barletta, and company aren't concerned with who sleeps in those beds, as long as someone does. What the Republican-led Homeland Security Committee wants is the illusion of security. That's the real danger.
Dow is the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. He teaches English at Hunter College in New York.