Small but powerful amendment could lessen immigration detention

Small but powerful amendment could lessen immigration detention
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The United States imprisons more immigrants than any other country, but we don’t have to. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a federal budget amendment introduced by Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOvernight Health Care: Trump poised to roll back transgender health protections | House Dems plan 'Medicare for All' hearing next week | Walgreens, Rite Aid raise tobacco-buying age to 21 | Drug distributor faces charges for role in opioid crisis House Dems to hold hearing on 'Medicare for All' next week Overnight Health Care: How 2020 Dems want to overhaul health care | Brooklyn parents sue over measles vaccination mandate | Measles outbreak nears record MORE (D-Wash.) and drafted with the support of Freedom for Immigrants to curtail the growth of U.S. immigration detention.

This amendment is the first step toward abolishing the immigration detention system, which is responsible for separating hundreds of thousands of families each year.

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The amendment specifically prohibits the U.S. Coast Guard from transferring funds to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the purpose of building or expanding immigration detention facilities. This is critical because the Trump administration has diverted over $200 million from other agencies, including $29 million from the Coast Guard, for the purpose of detaining and deporting immigrants and their children.  

Without congressional approval, the Trump administration transferred nearly $10 million last year meant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ICE. This administration also has diverted tax dollars needed for cancer research and HIV/AIDS prevention toward locking up children in cages.

These federal dollars could have been used to alleviate suffering. Instead, our tax money has been used to aggravate human suffering. For the asylum-seeker who is locked up, immigration detention means the complete deprivation of liberty and often, hope, and it means being subjected to countless forms of abuse. As a society, the diversion of these funds means our resources are not being invested in ways that serve our communities or respect human dignity.

This small, four-lined amendment to the fiscal year 2019 disaster relief supplemental appropriations bill signals a change in the political tide, though.    

Since the early 1980s, Congress has passed increasingly aggressive policies under both Democratic and Republican leadership, resulting in a system that now imprisons 48,000 immigrants, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking every day. In 1981, the Reagan administration opened the first modern immigration detention facility, the Fort Allen Detention Center on a former U.S. Navy Base in Puerto Rico, to detain Haitians.

In 1996, the Clinton administration passed two laws that greatly expanded immigration detention. President George W. Bush launched Operation Streamline, authorizing the mass criminal prosecution of immigrants at the border, which the Trump administration used to separate families this past summer. President Obama was responsible for the detention of about 350,000 to 400,000 people each year.

But there is a glimmer of hope, even in these times of round-the-clock upheaval.

The House voted in favor of ending this race to the bottom. For the first time in 30 years, our federal legislators have taken a step to stop immigration detention expansion.

And they are not alone.

California has taken decisive action. California’s Dignity Not Detention Act, which took effect in January 2018, and an amendment to California’s budget bill, AB 103, prevents California municipalities from entering into new, or modifying existing, contracts with ICE for immigration detention facilities, thereby halting the growth of immigrant prisons and jails in the state.  

More action is needed. Congress must pass the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act, which would stop the expansion of immigration detention entirely and require ICE to develop a plan for decreasing the number of people in immigration detention by 50 percent. It also would implement community-based alternatives to detention, which have been proven to be far less expensive than imprisonment.

It is time for the United States to stop fueling the incarceration industry and move toward a more humane response to migration.

Christina Fialho is an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaFialho.