Why the Sequester is Good News for Immigrant Families

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BTC protest Marco-Samuelito.jpg[Image: Steve Pavey]

Hundreds of undocumented and mixed-status families were reunited this week after ICE released people from immigration prisons en masse,
citing anticipated automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. In recent days, the White House has used its formidable political apparatus to play up the negative consequences of the sequester in an effort to maximize political damage to Republicans. Media reports told the story of drastic funding cuts to the Department of Homeland Security forcing the administration to release immigrants from prison. In reality, the sequester was likely an excuse, a convenient opportunity for the government to quiet growing criticism of Obama's longstanding policy of deporting record numbers of immigrants. Nevertheless, budget cuts to DHS mean that fewer fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives will be imprisoned and deported, which is good news for immigrant families.

The administration has stumbled from one public message to another regarding the prisoner releases this week. The initial message to the voting public was that immigrant prisoners were being released because of anticipated budget cuts, with the corollary that GOP hardliners were to blame for endangering public safety and national security. Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) called the White House's bluff and claimed that the White House was recklessly releasing dangerous people. DHS clarified that all of those released were "low-priority" individuals according to ICE's prosecutorial discretion guidelines. But in conceding that none of the people released were a threat to public safety, the administration effectively admitted that they should not have been locked up in the first place. It was a week of spin masquerading as policy.  

If the prison releases really were a direct result of DHS budget cuts, then long live the sequester! Military cuts, prison closures, family reunification--what's not to like?
If the budget cuts continue, the Tea Party may unwittingly help shrink the military/prison-industrial complex down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub. There are likely to be many negative consequences of the sequester, including layoffs, cuts in services, and a general economic slowdown. But on balance, the budget cuts to DHS are overwhelmingly positive for the families who now have their breadwinners back. When government is oppressive, government should be limited.

Many who have been organizing against immigration detention suspect that the sequester was a convenient excuse, that the primary motivation for the releases was to quiet growing criticism of DHS's detention policies. As the White House is now emphasizing, the budget cuts are due to roll out over time, so there was no immediate crisis that would prompt drastic action. In addition, agencies have discretion over how to implement the 8% or so of cuts they will be required to make make to their budgets. Most strikingly, the sequester hadn't yet happened when ICE started releasing prisoners. What had happened, though, was a recent series of damaging disclosures about the administration's immigration detention policies. Internal ICE records obtained by the ACLU showed that ICE has been targeting supposed low-priority cases to fill its annual deportation quota. Data released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse confirmed that ICE is ignoring its own directives on prioritizing resources. And organizers had kept up pressure on the administration by publicizing a steady stream cases of detention and deportation of people with low-priority cases.

Organizations around the country, including Families for Freedom, the National Day Laborer Network, Detention Watch Network, and 1Love Movement, have been pushing for immigration detention reforms for years. Starting last year, undocumented youth with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance secured the release of scores of detainees from Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Florida by organizing public campaigns around individual cases. (Disclosure: I have acted in a consulting role in some of these cases.) BTC is designated as a facility for low-priority detainees, meaning that had DHS been following its prosecutorial discretion guidelines, the facility would have been empty. NIYA organizers infiltrated the prison last summer to organize from the inside, identifying other inmates whose cases were then taken on for deportation defense campaigns. These efforts triggered investigative news reports and a Congressional inquiry. There were rumors from detainees at BTC about an internal DHS investigation, with a possible site visit on February 20, just days before the releases began. On Sunday, February 24, ICE started to clear out BTC.

While the releases are a positive development, those released nationwide represent a small fraction of the approximately 30,000 people in ICE custody. Those who were released aren't safe from deportation. Most will have to go to immigration court and continue to check in periodically with ICE. Many people have been given ankle bracelets, which stigmatize the wearer, can take hours to charge, and limit the ability to travel and therefore to work. Some of those released are likely to be deported in the future. But overall, a person's chances of staying in the U.S. increase markedly upon release from immigration prison.

Adding to the confusion, on Tuesday, the AP reported on the resignation of Gary Mead, head of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations. DHS quickly responded that Mead's resignation had been in the works for weeks and had nothing to do with the prisoner releases.

It is hard to tell whether the chaos of the past week represents skillful manipulation of competing groups or is a product of tensions between different bureaucratic factions. Or perhaps the administration is just careening from one crisis to the next. The underlying problem is that the Democrats have staked out untenable ground on immigration. They want to appear tough enough on undocumented immigrants to avoid political damage and to bring conservatives to the negotiating table for immigration reform, while also appearing benevolent to pro-immigrant voters ... whose families are being snatched up by the administration's deportation shock troops. It would be ridiculous except that the future of millions of families hangs in the balance. Politicians are accustomed to playing games with people's lives, but President Obama has set the bar at a new low with his fragmented, unprincipled immigration policy. He seems to be banking on widespread confusion over the "details" of who gets deported and why to help him muddle through the coming months of debate over immigration reform legislation.  

To sum up, the White House hopes to get credit for releasing undocumented people it concedes shouldn't have been locked up in the first place while also using prisoner releases as a scare tactic to turn public opinion against the sequester. Despite the conflicting messages, the fact that DHS was ready to use any excuse to release hundreds--maybe thousands--of immigrant prisoners confirms that the most effective way to change unjust laws and policies is through sustained organizing against them.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on March 1, 2013 11:40 AM.

Who Will Be Left Out of Immigration Reform? was the previous entry in this blog.

An Objection to Allocation of Citizenship By Accident of Birth is the next entry in this blog.

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