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Can you imagine a world without immigration prisons? In his latest book, Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking Up Immigrants, University of Denver law professor, author, and immigration expert, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, takes a sobering look at America’s vast immigration prison network, how it works, and how the United States can break free from it. While the book is part history lesson, it is also part indictment of Democratic and Republican leadership and policies. Weaved throughout are the stories of the real people whose lives have been forever changed by America’s immigration prison system. Rather than call for reform, García Hernández believes that the only equitable solution is the outright abolition of immigration prisons.
Over the last several months, García Hernández has been touring the country to promote his book. During his stop in Denver, I had the chance to sit down with him to talk about growing up near the border, what drove him to write about immigration prisons, and what gives him hope about America’s immigration system.
You grew up in McAllen, Texas, right along the border, as the child of an immigrant family. How has your childhood influenced your work as an immigration lawyer and professor?
García Hernández: My experience as someone who was born and had his first exposure to the world in this border community in south Texas and north Mexico really is why everything else that I’ve done has taken the trajectory that it has. As a kid, my initial exposure to the law was the border patrol. They got to decide who it is who gets to cross the bridge that united two communities—the bridge that my family and I regularly traversed for everything from lunch to weddings. Seeing the power the people who worked as border patrol agents had and knowing that they carried some mysterious legal authority was for me an incredibly formative series of experiences.
In the book you write that at one point it looked like immigration prisons were going to become extinct. How did we get from there to where we are now?
The moment in the 1950s when the Eisenhower administration decided to shut down most of the immigration prisons seems like a piece of fiction today. But that was the policy of the United States government until the Carter administration began to re-inaugurate detention as an important piece of immigration law enforcement. What happened to shift the government’s response was that the face of migration literally changed. We started to see a lot of migrants from Asia. We started to see an increase of dark-skinned and poor migrants, particularly from Haiti and Cuba. The Cubans that left in the 1980s were poor people that were often described in the media as being criminal, and the government’s response was to take a very strong arm approach to that threat.
You say that America’s immigration system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly as its been designed to work. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
If what we want is to help people abide by the immigration system, we could do that without locking them up behind barbed wire and making them go through the immigration court system without the benefit of lawyers. On the contrary, what we have is a system of prisons spread all around the country—from Miami to Seattle, Maine to San Diego—that effectively subverts the possibility of people who are going through the process to do so on their best footing. In large part, [it’s] because these facilities are in remote locations, difficult for lawyers to get to. Since the Reagan administration, we’ve been piloting projects that have supported people going through the process with lawyers, social workers, with case managers. Those have time and again had astonishingly high success rates of making sure people show up to their hearings.
Instead of calling for reform, you argue for outright abolition of immigration prisons. Why the distinction?
I don’t think you can ever justify locking up people simply for standing on a piece of land that is on the wrong side of a border. If what we’re concerned about is people actually being dangerous, that’s what the police are for. At best, locking people up while they’re going through the immigration process is redundant, at worst it subverts the rule of law.
What is the greatest challenge to abolishing immigration prisons?
The willingness of people to imagine it as a feasible option on the table. My driving goal in writing Migrating to Prison was to inject into the conversation about immigration law enforcement in 2020 the possibility of running an immigration law system that does not require locking up a single soul.
Do you see any glimmer of hope in our current immigration moment?
There is more than just a glimmer of hope. The small democratic process is a messy process but it is one that requires hope. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration had the courage to shut down the immigration prison system that existed at the time. It’s time for us in 2020 to be equally courageous.