“How do I have this knife, this guillotine over my neck and be able to function?” — New York immigrant-rights community leader Ravi Ragbir
The United States, the singular super power whose self- proclaimed exceptionalism is well known, is also exceptional for its gargantuan immigrant detention infrastructure, which is the largest in the world. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) annually detains some 400,000 men, women and children in both public and privately operated for-profit prisons. Moreover, the U.S. congress mandates that ICE maintains the capacity for 34,000 detainees.
Called migrants, non-citizens, aliens and immigrants, these individuals have fled from their native lands and come to the U.S. in hopes of finding freedom and safety, and also finding better economic opportunities. Many are refugees who are fleeing from violence, persecution and torture. But instead of a welcoming “city on the hill,” the newcomers find a complex, convoluted and confusing immigration apparatus, which even locks up those seeking asylum, often in privately run for-profit contract prisons.
The ominous sounding U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has administrative responsibility for the immigrant screening, detention and deporting processes, which are implemented through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies. Those individuals seeking asylum are vetted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is under DHS, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which falls under the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Foreign nationals arriving without documentation authorizing their legal entry into the U.S. usually have their first encounters with DHS personnel from CBP, who are tasked with processing the new arrivals under a system called Expedited Removal. Implemented in 1996 under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), Expedited Removal gives the authority to officials to return unauthorized immigrants to their countries of origin without the need to go before an immigration judge.
Individuals expressing a fear of being returned are referred to a DHS asylum officer to determine if the fear of return is “credible,” that is, the person must establish that by being deported to the country of origin, he or she may face persecution, harm or torture. The person is detained by DHS in one of several facilities while awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge to rule on the request for asylum. Failing to establish “credible fear,” an undocumented entrant is generally deported and banned from attempting legal entry for a period of five years.
The person seeking to enter the U.S. is usually detained in an ICE contract facility, such as the Houston (TX) Processing Center, which was built by Correction Corporation of America (CCA now rebranded as CoreCivic) in 1984 and was the first private detention facility in America. While the profitability of privately run prisons was somewhat lackluster through the 1990s, the industry received a huge boost with the 9/11 attacks and subsequent incarceration of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East. By 2003 CCA’s contract to run the Houston Processing Center included a guaranteed minimum clause, which soon was included in contracts for other facilities. The guarantee assures payment for a minimum number of detainees, even if ICE actually has fewer than that number of people in custody.
In addition to the contract facilities run by private companies, ICE has contracts for detention space with state and local governments, and also owns and runs its own so-called service centers. While it would appear that contract minimums only apply to those facilities under contract with private companies like CoreCivic, in truth, guaranteed minimums also show up in conjunction with leased facilities and even those directly owned by ICE. The reason for this is that private companies are often contracted by ICE to provide services like security, food and transportation in its facilities, or such services are subcontracted by state and local governments in facilities leased by ICE, and the contracts involved contain guarantee clauses.
As a consequence of the post-9/11 political climate, which legislated the creation of DHS and expanded detention capacity, and the guarantee clauses in contracts for services in facilities owned or leased by ICE, politicians have exerted intense political pressure to “fill the beds” in detention facilities. Beginning with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, ICE has been required to expand physical capacity by 8,000 beds each year, ultimately reaching the present level of 34,000.
Representative Harold Rodgers (R-KY), then chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee was very clear that he wanted “no empty beds.” Following a heated exchange with ICE Director Sarah Saldaña, Representative John Culberson (R-TX) proposed to alter the wording in legislation mandating the so-called “bed quota,” changing the requirement for ICE from merely to “maintain” the 34,000 bed detention capacity to actually “fill” the beds in the facilities with migrant detainees.
The U.S. immigration system came under severe stress in 2014 due to a dramatic increase in non-citizens arriving primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. These three Central American countries form what is referred to as the “Northern Triangle” in which murders, drug trafficking and other violent crime have created a humanitarian crisis. As an indicator of the level of violence, Honduras and El Salvador were ranked first and second respectively in homicides for the year 2014; Guatemala ranked ninth while the gun-happy U.S. was ranked at 107th place.
This violence and drug-related conflict can be traced back to U.S. involvement in the area in the 1980s when the CIA along with the U.S. military trained and supported “death squads” to neutralize Marxist opposition to the U.S.-backed military dictatorship in El Salvador. U.S. involvement in Guatemala goes back to the 1960s, when the Washington regime supported training for a vicious crackdown on what was deemed to be a communist-backed insurgency.
With this apocalyptic violence implanted by U.S. interference and nurtured by negligence, it should be unremarkable that over 90 percent of the undocumented immigrants deported under Expedited Removal come from the Northern Triangle countries and Mexico. Furthermore, this cataclysm has caused a tidal wave of children, unaccompanied by their parents or other responsible adults, to seek refuge in the United States, the same country primarily responsible for creating the chaos in their young lives. Describing her plight, one such unaccompanied child (UAC), a 15-year-old girl, explained, “In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there and I should go to the United States.”
Undocumented persons seeking to enter the U.S. at a port of entry, or apprehended within 100 miles of the border and 14 days of arrival, or within 24 months if arriving by sea, are interviewed by CBP officers. Those not expressing a fear of being returned are immediately incarcerated and referred to ICE for Expedited Removal. If a person expresses fear of persecution, harm or torture upon being returned to his or her country of origin, he or she is referred to a USCIS officer, who makes the determination of credible fear.
While waiting possibly up to a year for a hearing, the person is detained in one of the facilities run by ICE, such as the El Paso (TX) Processing Center (EPC) in which from 800 to 1,100 people are detained each day. While ICE runs EPC, security and facilities tasks are contracted out to private firms such as the Alaska-based Global Precision Systems, which subcontracts about half of the 411 security officer positions to Asset Protection and Security Services of Corpus Christi, Texas. Conditions are so bad at EPC that less than 15 percent of the detainees stay until their hearing; the remainder either accept voluntary departure or are deported.
In fact, the situation at EPC appears to mirror the likes of Abu Ghraib in terms of detainee abuse and degradation. According to the Detained Immigrant Solidarity Committee there has been routine use of solitary confinement as well as physical and verbal abuse of detainees by both ICE agents and contract security guards. In a written grievance, one immigrant wrote, “Fui tratado como un perro, no como un ser humano.” “I was treated like a dog, instead of a human being.”
Contrary to the egregious claims made by the current regime in Washington, these undocumented persons are mainly refugees fleeing U.S.-induced violence in their countries, and not “dangerous criminal illegal aliens.” Moreover, Trump intends to deport young children of undocumented immigrant parents raised in the United States—the so-called Dreamers—named after the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. “For those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home and apply for re-entry under the rules of the new legal immigration system,” he harangued while portraying the U.S. as a country overrun by illegal aliens.
Even those immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades are not safe like Ravi Ragbir, who has been a legal resident alien for over 25 years and has a wife and children. Convicted of wire fraud in 2001 resulting from his low level position in a mortgage business that came under criminal investigation, Ragbir found himself facing deportation after serving two and one-half years and has been fighting to remain in the U.S. ever since. Despite having the guillotine of deportation by ICE suspended over his neck, Ragbir has somehow managed to function, and has even become a leader and an icon in the battle for social justice and immigrant rights.
“We pray that those who are in power may listen to the cries, may see the injustice that is being perpetrated against their brothers and sisters,” entreated Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran minister at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. Ignoring the heartfelt pleas, those currently in power simply close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears, in passionate pursuit of their racist, anti-immigrant agenda, while congratulating themselves for their xenophobic successes based on the “dramatic drop in numbers” of non-citizen detentions.
[] Nick Pinto, “Behind ICE’s Closed Doors, ‘The Most Un-American Thing I’ve Seen’,” The Village Voice, March 10, 2017, accessed March 26, 2017,
 Silky Shah, Mary Small and Carol Wu eds., “Banking On Detention: local lockup quotas & the immigrant dragnet,” Detention Watch Network, 2015, accessed March 25, 2017,
 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act 2015, Public Law 114–4, 129 U.S Statutes,44, March 4, 2015, accessed March 25, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/114/plaws/publ4/PLAW-114publ4.pdf.
 Elizabeth Cassidy and Tiffany Lynch, “Barriers to Protection,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, August 2, 2016, 1, accessed March 27, 2017,
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 12.
 Silky Shah, Mary Small and Carol Wu, ibid., 3.
 Dawy Rkasnuam and Conchita Garcia., “Banking on Detention 2016 update,” Detention Watch Network, 2016, 3-5, accessed March 27, 2017,https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/sites/default/files/reports/Banking%20on%20Detention%202016%20Update_DWN%2C%20CCR.pdf.
 Silky Shah, Mary Small and Carol Wu, ibid., 2.
 Scott Rempell, “Credible Fears, Unaccompanied Minors, and the Causes of the Southwestern Border Surge,” Chapman Law Review, 18-2 (2015): 353, accessed March 27, 2017,
 Kuang Keng Kuek Ser, “Map: Here are countries with the world’s highest murder rates,” Public Radio International, June 27, 2016, accessed March 27, 2017,
 David Kirsch. “Death Squads in El Salvador: A Pattern of U.S. Complicity,” Covert Action Quarterly, Summer (1990), accessed March 27, 2017, http://www.whale.to/b/kirsch.html.
 “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 32, George Washington University, accessed March 27, 2017, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB32/vol2.html.
 Elizabeth Cassidy and Tiffany Lynch, ibid., 13.
 Erin B. Corcoran, “Getting Kids Out of Harm’s Way: The United States’ Obligation to Operationalize the Best Interest of the Child Principle for Unaccompanied Minors,” Connecticut Law Review, 47-1 (2014).
 Elizabeth Cassidy and Tiffany Lynch, ibid., vii.
 “Degradation, negligence, and abuse in ICE’s El Paso Processing Center,” Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, November 2016, 6.
 Ibid., 10-11.
 Stephen Collinson and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump on immigration: No amnesty, no pivot,” CNN, September 1, 2016, accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/31/politics/donald-trump-immigration-speech/index.html.
 Nick Pinto, ibid.
 “Southwest Border Migration,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, March 8, 2017, accessed March 27, 2017,https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration.