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The New York Times

Guantánamos Across America

New York Times Editorial

Toughness is the watchword in immigration policy these days. When you combine the new toughness with same-old bureaucratic indolence and ineptitude, you get a situation like that described by Nina Bernstein in The Times yesterday. She wrote about how the boom in immigration detention — the nation's fastest-growing form of incarceration — ensnares people for dubious reasons, denies them access to medicine and lawyers and sometimes holds them until they die.

Sandra M. Kenley, a legal permanent resident who had high blood pressure and a bleeding uterus, died in a rural Virginia jail after not receiving her medication. Returning home from a trip to Barbados she was locked up because of two old misdemeanor drug convictions. Abdoulai Sall, an auto mechanic, had no criminal record, but was still seized during an immigration interview. He had a severe kidney ailment and he, too, complained about not getting his medicine. He got sicker and died in another Virginia jail last December.

Sixty-two immigrants have died since 2004 while being held in a secretive detention system, a patchwork of federal centers, private prisons and local jails. Advocacy groups and lawyers say that the system not only denies detainees the most basic rights but also lacks the oversight and regulations that apply to federal prisons. Instead of fixing this broken system, the Senate bill that is lumbering toward final passage — after surviving a crucial procedural vote yesterday — is overloaded with provisions that will make it even harsher and more unfair.

One of the worst amendments comes from Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. It would impose mandatory detention of all people who overstay their visas. It's a huge overreach that threatens to swamp the detention system, filling already-strapped prisons at great expense and inevitably leading to more abuses and deaths. And because it takes away the power of officials to decide who poses a genuine threat and who doesn't, it would undermine efforts to catch and deport the truly dangerous.

The cells would be full of people who shouldn't be there: asylum seekers, the elderly, pregnant women, the sick and those ensnared in paperwork mistakes. Children, like the kindergartners in inmate scrubs walking the halls of a federal detention center outside Austin, Tex. Day laborers, like those in suburban Brewster, N.Y., whose arrests were hailed by a mayor who spoke proudly of his community's "zero tolerance" for people unlawfully playing soccer in a schoolyard.

The country already detains some 230,000 immigrants a year, at an annual cost of $1.2 billion. Under the current immigration bill, it would build tens of thousands more beds to hold detainees. And it would need many more — Guantánamo Bays across America — if Mr. Graham's zero-tolerance vision is fully realized.

Noncitizens are subject to our laws and to being deported if they do bad things. But this doesn't mean the country must detain or deport everybody, or relinquish basic decency or even basic sense to achieve some imagined ideal of toughness.

© 2007 The New York Times

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