If you go to a convenience store to buy a lottery ticket, you expect the results to depend on luck. But for one man, a trip to a convenience store for cigarettes turned out to be the start of a game of chance with far bigger stakes.
That man happened to get in line in front of a government agent, and he happened to be an immigrant who was in the U.S. illegally. When he was unable to produce proof of age to buy the cigarettes, the agent’s suspicions were aroused, and the would-be cigarette buyers soon found himself under guard at a privately run detention center that houses hundreds of people.
The detention center was the Broward Transitional Center in South Florida, operated by The GEO Group, Inc. The man was one of several detainees who were interviewed by two young immigration activists who intentionally surrendered themselves in order to investigate conditions at the facility. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently reported on their observations.
Detainees at the Broward Transitional Center, which can house up to 595 men and 105 women, are immigrants who have committed only minor offenses or no crime at all, other than entering or remaining in the country without permission. The center is intended simply to hold detained immigrants until their cases can be processed, not to punish them. However, the activists reported that conditions resemble those of a prison. Medical care is often difficult to obtain or inadequate, and detainees frequently must “volunteer” to work for $1 a day in order to be able to afford phone calls from pay phones and snacks to supplement meals. Uniforms are orange sweatsuits for men and gray for women. But unlike in an actual prison, detainees have no way of knowing how long they might be held or what might happen to them after their release.
Perhaps the most revealing part of the activists’ investigation was how it ended. Once the facility discovered that the activists were sending information to news outlets, immigration officials promptly determined that the two qualified for release under President Obama’s executive order not to deport so-called “Dreamers,” who were brought to the country illegally as children and would have qualified for legal protection under the DREAM Act if it had passed. “They literally kicked us out,” said one of the activists, Viridiana Martinez. Other detainees who also met the criteria of the DREAM Act, but who were not similarly well-connected to the media, were not released.
The way detainees at the Broward Transitional Center arrive there and the way the activists left highlight the random and capricious nature of our immigration system. In 2011, after failing to get immigration reform through Congress, the Obama administration announced that it would instead seek to reduce deportations of non-criminal immigrants by refocusing resources on higher priorities. The executive order designating Dreamers as a particularly low priority followed last summer.
In theory, these designations allow officials to consider the complexities of individual situations on a more humane “case-by-case” basis. In reality, however, the substitution of “priorities” for laws simply creates an atmosphere of uncertainty in which personal and political whims reign supreme. Factors such as criminal history can affect whether an individual is detained or deported, but so can factors such as whether the individual happened to stand next to the wrong person on a line at a convenience store.
Many Americans have little sympathy for illegal immigrants who find themselves in custody, by chance or otherwise. But I don’t know many people who would justify allowing a private company to dragoon detainees into providing much of the labor to support their own confinement, when those detainees have not been convicted of a crime, or even received a final administrative determination of their status. Don’t minimum-wage laws apply to The GEO Group’s use of detainee labor? This sounds to me like a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen, which may help explain why the company, abetted by federal immigration officials, was so eager to get rid of the detained activists.
We have to create a more rational, fair and humane immigration system. Fairness demands that policies, whether strict or lenient, not be enforced on a bureaucratic whim. Good sense, self-interest and American history would argue for a system that allows liberal legal immigration, so migrants can continue to contribute to our society’s growth and prosperity.
Luck should not be all that distinguishes someone who ends the day at home with a pack of cigarettes from someone who ends the day in a detention center.