Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ICE Cracks

All of the meals at Annunciation House are eaten with everyone together, around one large table. Niños primero, and then the rest can grab food too. If you look around the table at any given meal, you will see many very unique stories of how each person arrived at that table. There will be kids laughing, crying, and throwing their food. Mamas will be chasing, and trying to eat themselves. There will be lively talk in Spanish, English, Arabic… somehow all making just one large conversation. But if you continue to look, and pay attention to the patterns of the unique stories, you could realize that as different as the stories are, they mostly all fall into just a few categories. These categories are created by gaps in the social structure and errors in public policy. So it turns out that the guests at Annunciation House are to an extent just one byproduct of public policy, and because of that, they provide a unique view of what went wrong and why it didn’t work.

In this sense, Annunciation House is intimately connected with the actions of our government. Receiving no government funds and having no formal government connections, it is an odd relationship to feel so close to governmental policy via the fact that we are doing their dirty work.

This topic was brought up when the board of directors for Texas ACLU met at Annunciation House. Someone asked what our relationship looked like with immigration and the government. We described it as simply anomalous. Here is a less simple explanation…

To generalize, the major categories that we see at our house are: the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) guests, the workers, the single mothers, the refugees from violence in Juárez, and the social security guests

In the next couple of weeks, I will attempt to go category by category and document how public policy and other factors have left each category of people in crisis.

This week I will document the public policy involved with former ICE detainees who become left with no options.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could be considered the muscle of immigration law enforcement. ICE manages all of the immigration raids, does investigations, and runs the detention system. If Annunciation House were ever to be raided for providing hospitality, ICE would be the ones to do it. But in fact, our relationship with ICE is unique, because they actually rely on us. Every few days or so, we receive a call from ICE asking us if we can take someone from their detentions. These guests are, for lack of a better term, called ICE guests (despite their warm hearts).

The ICE guests are here essentially because of faults in the detention and processing system. I would identify two groups in this category: Those who are seeking asylum, and those who were picked up by immigration officials without proper documents. ICE’s response to dealing with these people has changed drastically in the last few years. Until 2006, the US government used a system known as catch and release. With that system, when a person was identified by immigration as not having proper papers, they would be picked up, given a court date to appear before a judge, and then released on their own recognizance. According to a 2007 hearing from the congressional subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism, more than 90% of these “illegal aliens”* never showed up to their court date. Because of this, in addition to a desire for deterrence and punishment, the US decided to begin detaining people instead of releasing them, under the Secure Border initiative. The new program is referred to as Catch and Return. The implications of this change are immense. In one year after the change, ICE increased its detention capacity by 7,500 beds. Now, more than 34,000 people are in over 500 US detentions each day, at the cost of $141 dollars per night per person. Despite the increase in beds and funding, ICE’s eyes appear to have been too big for their stomach—they simply cannot achieve the vast task in which they set out to do. ICE has to release detainees against their will for three main reasons. They don’t have enough beds, they can’t afford to detain people with medical needs, and because a Supreme Court ruling, Zadvydas, states that every 90 days the detention of each individual must be reviewed and if it does not appear that the person can be deported to their country, they then must be released.

So typically, people are released to our house for one of those three reasons. The oddity is that even though someone may be released from detention, it doesn’t mean that he/she has legal status. Many of them are still in the middle of immigration processing such as appeals on an asylum case, deportation proceedings, or waiting for work papers.

A few examples to make this clear (names and details have been altered for the sake of confidentiality)...Adam, from Somalia, was released to our house after 13 months in detention. While in detention, he won his asylum case, but then it was appealed. Later, he won the appeals. Now, while he is at our house, he is waiting because his case is being appealed, AGAIN, at the taxpayer’s expense. I find it quite silly that we (The US) are appealing his case twice, even though it was decided originally by the strict guidelines in which we put in place. It is interesting to know that 62% of people that apply for asylum in the US are denied relief. Because technically Adam hasn’t gotten asylum yet, he is left without working papers or identification to travel legally in the US. Therefore, in El Paso, where most shelters require legal status for admittance, he was left with no option but Annunciation House. ICE called us and asked if we would take him in. We said yes.

Javier, from Honduras, worked in a Mexican restaurant in North Carolina. One day, ICE raided the restaurant and picked up him and his friends. He was detained for six days in El Paso, but then released because they were running low on beds. ICE gave him a court date, and released him in hopes that he will show up. Unfortunately, he was released in a city he has never been to with no support network. That is how he ended up with no other option except Annunciation House. ICE called us an asked if we would take him in. We said yes.

Gloria, from El Salvador, was 4 months pregnant when Border Patrol picked her up crossing the border with her husband. They separated her and her husband, detained her for a few days, but then decided that they didn’t want anything to do with the medical needs of a pregnant women. They released her, leaving the medical expenses to the public, and gave her a court date. Most likely, once she has her child, she will be deported. ICE called us and asked us if we would take her in. We said yes.

The act of calling us, and asking for our help, is verification by ICE of our necessity and also of problems with the current system of catch and return. It is ICE admitting, “we need you, because we have cracks that people are falling through.” And this is precisely the reason that they show up at our door asking for help, and not ready to raid.

The ICE guests show up at our house because under the current system people are detained and then displaced upon release with no status to either travel back to where they have a support network, or to get a job for survival. They are left in a limbo, and Annunciation House exists to lift the bar and let them get through without breaking their backs.

This current program isn’t one without economic consequences as well. In FY 2010, our detention program will cost us over $1.7. Take Adam for example, who is in the process of getting asylum and who was in detention for 13 months. That means that the taxpayers spent $54,990 to detain someone who would eventually receive asylum. This strikes me as unfair to everyone involved.

One alternative to the detention system that many people in the immigration reform movement support is the switch to electronic ankle bracelet monitoring, which shows a rate of higher than 90% for getting people to actually show up to their immigration appointments. The cost of this is $12 per day per person, and is arguably more humane detention. However, a guest at our house has one of these ankle bracelets and it is not problem-free. He wears pants no matter what to avoid the embarrassment of people seeing the bracelet and assuming that he is some kind of criminal. Playing soccer, looking for jobs, hanging out with friends, he has to be wearing pants. Also, he has to sit by an electrical outlet for hours each day to charge the ankle bracelet. The dignity provided in this situation is certainly questionable.

The current system is overwhelmingly expensive, sadly inhumane, and clearly incomplete, leaving places like Annunciation House to pick up the slack. In 2006, when the catch and release program was visibly ineffective, major congressional changes occurred and created the system we now have. Today, in 2009, as the catch and return program is visibly inefficient and inhumane; it seems time for major changes once again. A ver.

* Governmental organizations and many media sources use the term “illegal aliens” to refer to those who are undocumented within our borders. Because of this, the term “illegal aliens” has become a common term in public use. However, it seems very clear to me that no person is illegal and no person is an alien, they simply don’t have proper documents—they are undocumented.