by Silky Shah, courtesy of  The Forge

Abolish ICE became a rallying cry for the immigrant rights movement amid the family separation crisis in 2018. Much of the critique focused on the “broken immigration system” and the innocent children it was harming but failed to expose the deep connections between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the criminal punishment system in the United States. Two years later, the murder of George Floyd awakened the public to the disproportionate impact of the prison industrial complex on Black communities, and the movement to abolish police and prisons broke through in new ways. Within the immigrant rights movement, organizers showed solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and lifted up stories about the ways ICE targets Black migrants. Recently, prominent policy organizations such as the ACLU and American Immigration Council have — for the first time — called for an end to mass immigration detention. As we reflect on the unprecedented impact of 2020 on our movements, it’s past time for the immigrant justice movement to embrace the broader calls for prison abolition and defunding the police.

At the most basic level, the criminal punishment and immigration enforcement systems are fully intertwined: ICE collaborates with local police to target immigrants for deportation and subcontracts with county jails to incarcerate them. Over the past several years, many state-level criminal justice reform efforts have led to an increase in empty prison and jail beds that ICE has then used to detain immigrants. The number of immigrants incarcerated in the federal prison system for immigration crimes is also growing. But perhaps the most important connection is the moral one. For years, the immigrant rights movement has used criminalizing language that reinforces stereotypes about good immigrants who deserve relief versus bad ones who are disposable. Not only has this hurt our ability to challenge racist and xenophobic immigration laws and policies; it is also coded in anti-Black racism, furthering division between our movements.

Obama and the Limits of Reform

For over a decade, Democrats have focused on passing comprehensive immigration reform, meaning they have been willing to make significant tradeoffs with Republicans in order to get legalization for even a fraction of the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Those tradeoffs included ramping up border militarization and increasing interior enforcement and collaboration with local police to round up and deport immigrants. To justify these tradeoffs, Democrats entrenched a good immigrant versus bad immigrant narrative. In one infamous example, President Obama announced administrative reforms that would target “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

Rather than question the notion that people with felony convictions or gang affiliations deserve to be deported, advocates leaned into the framing. For example, many organizations have elevated research pointing out how immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens, without fully understanding the anti-Black racism that underlies such comparisons. The Obama administration’s strategy traded more enforcement for some relief, but very little happened in the way of positive reforms. Instead, the narrative gave credence to Republican attacks on immigrant and Black communities — and more people were deported than ever before.

The organization I work at, Detention Watch Network, was founded after the passage of the 1996 immigration laws, which dramatically expanded the scope of who could be detained and deported. In 2012, we were coming to realize that our lack of clarity about our vision was hurting our ability to win. Our policy demand was “detention as a last resort,” but this framing only furthered the idea that some people deserve to be detained. Despite our best efforts to expose all the inhumane aspects of detention, the response from the administration was to improve conditions and increase transparency. It was the end of Obama’s first term and — despite early promises of reform to the immigration detention system — the number of people detained and deported each year had only increased. After a year of engagement with groups like Critical Resistance and sometimes contentious conversations within our membership, we updated our vision to call for a world without immigration detention.

Immigrants in detention are only there awaiting a determination on their immigration case. Those with criminal convictions complete their sentences prior to being sent to immigration detention. Still, our position against detention was unpopular, not only within DC but within the broader movement. Immigration detention had become so normalized that the idea of getting rid of it seemed far-fetched, even to those most committed to immigrant justice. In his second term, Obama ended up expanding immigration detention, including for families. But four years of attacks on immigrants from the Trump administration, along with the power of the call for abolition since the uprisings last summer, has shifted the movement. In August 2020, over 170 organizations signed on to an action plan on immigration that included phasing out detention and decriminalizing migration. It is hard to predict what the next four years will hold, but clarity about our vision will be critical to ensuring we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Obama years.

A Racist System by Design

ICE is a byproduct of the prison industrial complex (PIC), which Critical Resistance defines as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.” Racial control undergirds the systems of policing, incarceration, and expulsion. The regulation of Black and brown bodies through carceral systems presupposes that society is composed of two groups: the white majority who deserves protection and legal rights and the Black and brown minority whom the white public needs to be protected from. Both the prison industrial complex and the deportation machine expanded in reaction to hard-fought civil rights gains as well as the changing demographics of the U.S. The PIC is a failed response to the myriad social issues facing our society; similarly, the deportation machine criminalizes immigrants without addressing the root causes of why people migrate to the U.S. In many ways, ICE is a microcosm of the prison industrial complex, as the agency runs the pipeline from arrest to detention to deportation.

Anti-Blackness fuels U.S. immigration enforcement. The immigration detention system began to take its current form in 1980, when Haitian migrants arrived on Florida’s shores, and Black migrants continue to be disproportionately targeted for deportation. Within the first few weeks of the Biden administration, hundreds of immigrants from African and Caribbean nations were deported. Among them was Paul Pierrilus, a stateless forty-year-old who had lived in the U.S. since 1985. A drug conviction in 2003 triggered his immigration status, and he was ordered to be removed by a judge. For years, he checked in with immigration but remained free. Then, on January 11, ICE detained him at a routine appointment. Three weeks later, Pierrilus was on a flight to a country he had never been to before.

ICE is only one piece of the puzzle. Immigrants are criminalized by a variety of agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. In recent years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has increasingly prosecuted immigrants for entry-related offenses or the act of crossing the border without documentation. The laws allowing the government to do so were introduced in 1929 by Coleman Livingston Blease, a white supremacist senator from South Carolina, to deter Mexican migrants. However, they were rarely enforced until the last two decades, when expanding border militarization led to an increase in prosecutions for entry-related violations, from 4,000 in 1993 to 91,000 in 2013. People convicted of migrant prosecutions spend anywhere from thirty days to two years in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service or Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Immigrants with drug convictions can sometimes face twenty-year sentences.  

Most immigrants in BOP custody are held in prisons segregated for non-citizensthat, by design, lack services due to the fact that most people there will eventually be deported. Jesse Jerome Dean, Jr., a Black Bahamian immigrant who was sentenced to thirty years during the drug war in the 1990s, was incarcerated in these segregated prisons. When he was finally released on December 31, 2020 after spending half his life incarcerated, he was immediately transferred to ICE custody. Tragically, he died one month later, on February 5, 2021, while awaiting deportation. Biden’s recent executive order to eliminate federal contracts with private prisons would purportedly phase out these segregated facilities, which are operated by private companies. But many of the underlying contracts are for terms longer than four years, limiting the potential for permanent change.  

Unintended Consequences of Siloed Movements

Efforts to reform the criminal punishment system and decarcerate state prisons have gained considerable traction in recent years. But as prisons reduce their populations, ICE has filled the beds with detained immigrants. In 2017, for example, New Jersey eliminated most cash bail, significantly reducing the jail population. For ICE, which had been trying to expand in the northeast region for years, this was a boon; now, hundreds of empty jail beds were available to them. Hudson County, one of the many county jails in New Jersey that contracts with ICE, doubled its ICE capacity to 800 after bail reform went into effect in 2018. However, in response to mounting pressure from people formally detained at the jail as well as local activist organizations, Hudson County officials voted to phase out the contract in 2021.

Immigrant rights advocates in the region were divided on the decision to end the ICE contract at Hudson. New York City had recently started funding legal representation for residents held at Hudson, and advocates feared that immigrants would be transferred out of state when the contract ended, making it harder for them to retain counsel. Legal service providers released a statement calling for Hudson County to keep detaining immigrants, despite their support for the call to Abolish ICE, and many immigrant rights organizations subsequently hesitated in their support of the closure.

As a result of the loss of revenue stemming from bail reform as well as the confusion the legal community caused, Hudson County reversed course on its decision to phase out the ICE contract. In November 2020, during a marathon commissioners’ meeting on Zoom in which a hundred people provided testimony to oppose the ten-year renewal of the Hudson contract, the county voted to renew it, despite the earlier vote to phase it out. The officials who voted in favor of renewal cited the need for the revenue the ICE contract would bring as well as the 2018 statement from legal service providers, which convinced them they were helping people detained at Hudson. Now a new ten-year contract for ICE detention is in place in part because some immigrant rights groups didn’t embrace abolition.

The dynamics around the Hudson County ICE contract created significant tension within the movement to end immigration detention nationwide. Was detention better in urban areas because of access to counsel and family connections? Shouldn’t we be worried that detention would just go elsewhere, making it harder to fight for closure because of limited resources and organizing capacity? While these are fair questions, they focused on mitigating the harm of the current system — not on building the power to abolish ICE and immigration detention. In fact, building organization and activism against ICE in communities like New York City, which have more resources and capacity, is essential to making gains at the federal level, where most decisions about detention are made.

In 2017, Louisiana also passed significant criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population by ten percent over ten years. In the years that followed, the state prison population decreased, leaving thousands of empty prison beds and many communities reeling from the consequent loss of jobs and revenue. Much like in New Jersey, ICE decided to swoop in. Over the course of a year, ICE contracted with seven additional facilities in the state, expanding its capacity there by roughly 6,000 beds. While the intention in Louisiana was to reduce the rate of incarceration, criminal justice advocates hadn’t anticipated that those beds would then be used by ICE.  

In many ways, the story of Louisiana’s detention expansion reflects the concerns of legal service providers like those in New York City who opposed closing Hudson. There are limited resources in rural areas for legal representation and for organizing to stop detention expansion, which makes it harder for immigrants detained there to get relief even if they are eligible. ICE knows this and intentionally isolates people in remote facilities to make it easier to detain and deport them as quickly as possible. But the response shouldn’t be to detain people closer to urban areas or stop the closure of facilities. Rather, we should reaffirm the call to end detention altogether, expose the injustices of the system as a whole, and build the groundswell of support for federal action to abolish the system.

Strategies for Solidarity and Alignment

The fight for migrant justice and abolition of the prison industrial complex will be a long one, but we must do everything we can to ensure we are not repeating the mistakes of the past, which have resulted in further criminalization, incarceration, and division between our movements. Here are some strategies for those fighting for immigrant justice to consider:

  • Learn as much as you can about the intersections between the PIC and deportation machine. Promote political education within your organization and with the individuals you work with. Prioritize accountability to the PIC abolition movement in how you organize, advocate, and message on immigration.
  • Connect local efforts to defund the police with the broader call to defund ICE and Border Patrol. ICE is one of the largest police agencies in the country; showing the relationships and similarities among racist law enforcement agencies is critical to the call to Abolish ICE. In addition to police departments, local sheriffs have an oversized role in immigration enforcement. Unseating draconian sheriffs can have a considerable impact on reducing pre-trial detention and jail populations for immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.
  • Strategize with local groups to permanently close jails and prisons. When an ICE detention contract ends, that facility can still be contracted out to the U.S. Marshals Service or local governments. Repurposing or dismantling these structures will ensure jails and prisons are not used by other law enforcement agencies.
  • Build relationships with organizations advocating for state-level sentencing reforms to decarcerate prison populations. The New Jersey and Louisiana stories are cautionary tales of the unintended consequences of these efforts and what’s at stake if we continue to stay siloed. In addition, sentencing reforms at the state level can impact whether immigrants receive certain benefits and can prevent them from being targeted for detention and deportation.
  • Lift up and connect with groups working at the intersection of these issues such as the Rising Majority, Survived and Punished, and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.
  • Be present in key moments. It’s not enough to simply show solidarity; taking action and offering support when it is most needed is crucial. The more you build relationships, the easier it will be to practice this.  

One thing is clear to me after the protests last summer: if Black communities are thriving, we are all thriving. Today, the willingness of well-resourced immigrant rights groups to call for ending detention is due in part to the space opened up by the uprisings for Black lives and the call for abolition. It is not enough to Abolish ICE and disentangle immigration from the criminal punishment system; we must work to abolish the entire prison industrial complex in order for all of our communities to thrive.

Silky Shah is the Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition building power to abolish immigration detention in the United States. She has worked as an organizer on issues related to immigration detention, the prison industrial complex, and racial and migrant justice for nearly 20 years.