Wednesday, February 4, 2009

As my colleague wrote: Sunlight and Underwear, what they have in common besides a human's need for them

Today, like most days, when I came into work I spent the first 45 minutes of my day siphoning through news articles, op-eds, and editorials that have been emailed to me since I left work at 5:30 the day before. These help keep me up-to-date on all that is happening in the immigration realm across the country, and in turn, enable me to better inform you (once or twice a week I post a blog with what I consider the top 5-6 most recent articles that talk about how immigration affects our community. To check last week's out, click here or here).

Today, a couple articles in particular stuck out to me. One was titled: "The Big Business of Family Detention: It's not just alleged terrorists who are suffering from our inhumane treatment of detainees. It's also children." The second was called: "ICE Raids--Detention Centers Not About Immigration, All About Money!"

These titles disturbed me, even though the issues the articles discuss are well-known subjects to me.

They made me think about my own trip to a local detention center about two weeks ago. Some colleagues of mine had set up the trip so that those of us who work on immigration issues here in Washington could actually see firsthand some of the situations that immigrants deal with.

Overall, the facility was quite well kept and run in an orderly fashion. The guards and superintendent of the facility were unbelievably gracious to our group, spending over 4 hours with us and answering any question that we had. The facility didn't appear to be the harrowing place that we hear about in so many news articles where people are abused or dying because of substandard treatment.

However, I think my colleague Katrine from NETWORK (a Catholic social justice lobby) put it best when she wrote:

"Underwear and sunlight, sunlight and underwear. The two never seemed to go together as underwear would theoretically never see sunlight nor sunlight see underwear. I thought that the only commonality was the person, wearing the underwear, basking in the sunlight. I did not realize that at Hampton Roads they would have another thing in common: their classification as non-essentials. So non-essential that the sun is to be felt only through the small crack of one window in a gym, and bras worn only if one has five or ten dollars to pay for a pair from the jail commissary. In the end, a very intriguing and educational tour came down to the simplest of things: underwear and sunlight, sunlight and underwear."

It's the so-called small things that immigrants are deprived of that perhaps is most shocking: underwear, sunlight. No contact visits are allowed. Spouses cannot see each other if they are in the same facility. Parents cannot hug their children. Children are born while their mothers are shackled to the bed.

And you can be in there for years.

And in some facilities, children are held wearing criminal jumpsuits. Children raised behind bars without sunlight and underwear, underwear and sunlight.

All because of civil infractions that are about equal to a traffic ticket in legal terms.

When I think about these realities in relation to the economic gain made by companies who run the immigrant detention centers like those discussed in the two articles I received today, I can't help but envision it as a caricature in which there is a huge corrupt traffic cop with his foot on the roof of a car that he's pulled over, holding the people inside indefinitely and charging them $200 a day for their "criminal activity."

Except in this case, it's a private company and not a cop. And children and families seeking better lives after economic deprivation, war-torn countries, and exploitation rather than someone who drove too fast.

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