US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Homeland Security revamps detention of undocumented

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

After the failure of comprehensive immigration legislation in 2006, which the Bush administration had supported, President Bush promised to enforce current law vigorously to assuage Republicans. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began to pursue the undocumented onto the factory floor, restaurant kitchens and janitorial closets in harsh raids. As a consequence, immigration detention centers filled up and new contracts were let to local and private prisons.

That quickly created a new set of problems. Mass round-ups led to separating parents from children and families. People got lost in the system. As immigration courts backed up, long detention followed in overcrowded centers. People whose only offense was to be "illegally" in the country--even refugees fleeing oppression--were thrown in with hardened criminals.

The 287(g) program – named after a section in a 1996 law -- authorized ICE to make deals with local law enforcement agencies to cooperate in enforcing the laws in the streets and in local jails. The intent of the law was to go after undocumented immigrants who either brought a criminal record with them or gained one while here--illegally or legally. But, as unintended consequences, women and children were treated like convicts, detainees were kept from their relatives, medical care was so poor that deaths due to neglect occurred.

The Obama administration shifted the focus of enforcement from raids to employer audits (see the last item in this previous blog entry ). Now Homeland Security (DHS) has released a critical report conceding the many abuses and promised reforms. Non-felon detainees will no longer be held with those charged with a felony. There will be special care for mothers and children, even constructing new detention centers. Meanwhile hotels and old nursing homes will be used to house the non-criminal detainees. Health care will improve.

Yet DHS will not end the 287(g) program, though it will rein in the enthusiasts (see below). The NY Times editorially welcomes the moves as a first step, but most immigration advocates urge doing away with 287(g).

Reining in America’s "toughest lawman"

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix) styles himself as America's "toughest lawman." The claim was made as he instituted tough changes in the county jail. No more pampering of inmates; they were to know what “serving hard time” meant. He dressed inmates in striped uniforms reminiscent of the chain gangs. He also provided pink underwear, served poor meals and housed some in a tent city. Conditions in his jail were noted by the federal courts and he was ordered to improve them.

Lately, Sheriff Joe has gained notoriety for his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. His office collaborated with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) under the 287(g) program. This section of 1996 law was meant to gain the cooperation of local law enforcement in the execution of immigration laws in the streets and scrutinize the records of inmates in jail. The sheriff was an early and eager participant, sending hundreds of his deputies for training. He carried his passion for law to having "criminal sweeps"--closing off areas for intensive searches for "felons." Those who could not document their right to be in the country were detained for ICE. The jail portion was a scrutiny of all arrests for the legal status of the inmate.

Civil liberty groups and immigration advocates protested the sweeps as no more than racial profiling. Only about 300 persons were so detained, but fear stalked the Hispanic neighborhoods of Phoenix and surrounding towns. Sheriff Joe even boasts that if the numbers were not so great, at least more undocumented were scared out of town. But the detentions were not necessarily what the law intended. Most were held for no greater crime than being here illegally. Homeland Security earlier told the sheriff's office not to hold such undocumented, but now it is dropping it from participating in the street portion of the act. Sheriff Joe is outraged and feels the new administration is going after him for political reasons. The jail checks, however, will go on as usual.

Evangelical Christians urge comprehensive immigration reform

Evangelical Christians are often dismissed as politically conservative. But it’s as dangerous to stereotype them as it would be with Catholics. They come in all stripes. The National Association of Evangelicals just this week released a statement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. This is very much like what is urged by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Like most religious consensus statements, it does not represent the views of individual evangelicals or of every evangelical congregation – any more than the bishops’ statement in regard to Catholics. But the statement is a call to all evangelicals to see that welcoming the stranger is integral to Jesus’ gospel (Mt. 25) and the judgment of evangelical leaders that comprehensive reform is how to do that in our times.