Immigration Detention: Christina Mansfield Speaks Out on Our Broken System

April 5, 2013 by  · Leave a Comment

486737_166876533463595_567981636_nOn this blog, I try to share both my thoughts and those of others standing for welcome at LIRS and nationwide.  Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS, with Christina Mansfield, co-founder of Detention Dialogues, the first detention visitation program in California, co-founder and co-Executive Director of CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement), and member of the steering committee of the Detention Watch Network.

The human cost of America’s immigration detention system is staggering.  While it’s not splashed across the news as frequently as other immigration issues,  conditions in detention frequently fall below United Nations standards, and include treatment such as solitary confinement. A lack of access to counsel and other basic human rights are all too common.

That’s why the work of activists like Christina Mansfield is so important. She and her colleagues are organizing detention visitation networks and advocating for humane and just alternatives to detention.  Through the dedicated work of activists, we can begin to move past our unnecessary and destructive detention paradigm.  Here are her thoughts, shared via email:

Luke Telander (LT): What first motivated you to work in immigration detention visitation?

Christina Mansfield (CM): I started studying the immigration detention system in 2007 when I was earning my M.A. degree in Cultural Anthropology.  I decided that I wanted to study a pilot program along the border called Operation Streamline, which criminally prosecutes people who are apprehended crossing the US/Mexico border.  As part of this research, I traveled to Tucson, Arizona, and sat in on an Operation Streamline court proceeding.   I was absolutely shocked by what I witnessed in that courtroom.  In the span of only one hour, 80 men and a few women, none of them white, were mass prosecuted for “entry” or “reentry” and sentenced to various terms in federal prisons.  The defendants were brought out in orange jumpsuits and shackled at the hands, ankles and feet.  The judge read out where each person was apprehended, at what time, and instructed him or her to plead guilty or not guilty.  No one pleaded not guilty.   When it was time for sentencing the defendants were brought before the judge in groups of 10 and each group of 10 was assigned to one public attorney.  The judge proceeded to sentence these migrants who risked their lives to cross the border to terms in prison, sometimes for years.   All of the defendants were criminally prosecuted and banned from returning to the United States for at least 10 years.  I remember being struck by how the experience felt like a sham performance, and an incredibly cruel one at that.  Even worse, I was the only person sitting in that courtroom.  I felt my own privilege that I had taken for granted and a tremendous sense of responsibility in witnessing that proceeding.  Outside it was a beautiful spring day and inside criminals were being manufactured, as human beings were sentenced to imprisonment and social death.  There are some significant differences between Operation Streamline, which criminally prosecutes migrants and immigration detention, which is a consequence (and punishment) for a civil violation of immigration law.  But at the end of the day, whether the system is criminal or civil, it is criminalizing (making criminals) immigrants and migrants, punishing them, and tearing families apart.

LT: What has been the most difficult thing about working in detention?

CM: I find the most difficult thing is witnessing the racism that I believe is the root cause of the immigration detention system and all of the unnecessary suffering it causes.  Also, I often feel an extreme sense of helplessness because our ability to advocate for people in immigration detention is restricted by the policies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the jail/detention center staff with whom they contract.  For example, there is no legally protected right to visitation or a free phone call for immigrants in detention.  As a result, the people we meet in detention are very isolated, separated from their families and everything that makes life meaningful.  This is heartbreaking and our ability to end isolation and protect against human rights abuses is often thwarted by restrictive phone and visitation policies and concerns for “security.”  The concern for “security” is invoked often and what it really means is that jail/detention center staff and ICE will not allow CIVIC volunteers to remain in contact with people in detention.  The stated justification for perpetuating this isolation is that the government or jail staff is protecting the privacy and safety of people in detention.  However, I think this logic of “protecting” people by isolating and imprisoning them, while making a profit, is clearly ridiculous.  Although I am astonished every day by how advocates in CIVIC’s network are able to support immigrants in detention in inspiring and creative ways, for me there is always an underlying sense of defeat and despair.  I think this feeling is simply the nature of working to improve a system that is so corrupted and broken.

LT: One of Detention Dialogues’ programs focuses on student awareness.  What has been the response among students to this issue?

CM: Detention Dialogues and CIVIC, the national network of visitation programs that I co-direct, have engaged many students in education and advocacy to support immigrants in detention, including students who are directly affected by the system and students who are not.  The response among students who are not directly affected by immigration detention seems to be a combination of disbelief and outrage.  Students do not understand how a country predicated on the values of freedom and civil rights can so systematically deny these values to immigrants.  I think the subsequent outrage students feel is quite healthy and often translates itself into a foundation for strong and empowered advocates. Students who are directly affected by the immigration detention system do not share the privilege of disbelief that the other students feel, but their sense of outrage is often palatable and refined.  As a leader who has not been directly affected by immigration detention and who began this work as an ally, I rely upon the guidance and sense of urgency that people who have suffered the consequences of the immigration detention system bring to our work.

LT: What is the most common public misconception about detention?

CM: I think the most common misconception about immigration detention is that it is an unfortunate, but necessary system.  However, we know that there are many viable community-based alternatives to immigration detention (ATDs) that cost less, are much more humane, and that still achieve the governments goals of immigration regulation.  The reason these ATDs are not implemented is because the counties and private detention facilities with whom the government contracts to hold immigrants in detention would not be able to make exorbitant profits from these alternatives.  I think the recent releases of people from detention that occurred due to “the sequester” are the perfect example of this corrupt profit motive.  The government did not release people from detention in response to serious allegations and documentation of human rights abuses that occur in immigration detention across the country.  Instead, they released people from detention (in many cases on alternative forms of monitoring) simply because they ran out of the money required to hold them.  This makes clear the priorities of the government with regards to the immigration detention system and the way fiscal costs take precedence over human costs.

LT: Why must detention reform be a critical part of comprehensive immigration reform?

CM: Detention reform must be a critical part of comprehensive immigration reform because of the way families have been, and continue to be, torn apart by immigration enforcement and immigration detention.   I know that plans for comprehensive immigration reform, which may include a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants, also include a tightening of border security with programs like Operation Streamline that criminally prosecutes migrants to the United States.  CIVIC’s network of advocates understand the potential consequences of this tradeoff.  For example, we know of many people who spent up to years of their life in civil immigration detention, only to be deported in the end.  These same people risked everything to again cross the border and reunite with their families in the United States.  Many of them were caught in the dragnet of Operation Streamline and sentenced to years in federal prison for “reentry.”  This means that people who were held for long periods of time in civil immigration detention are now being criminally imprisoned for attempting to reunite with their families.  Plans for comprehensive immigration reform will only exacerbate these problems.  I believe comprehensive immigration reform must take into account the damage that has already been done to immigrant families through the enforcement and detention system and it must take responsibility for alleviating these consequences.

LT: What makes you hopeful for the future of immigration detention?

CM: The only thing I remain hopeful about with regards to the future of immigration detention is that the system may not have a future in this country.  The United States is plagued by a sense of amnesia and an unwillingness to take responsibility for injustices in our past.  I believe the immigration detention system will go down in history as another unjust and unnecessary system of social control.  I believe people in the future will feel ashamed of the way their country imprisoned vulnerable people who do not deserve such punishment.   I remain hopeful that through education, advocacy, and movement building we can induce this kind of reflection in the present and not wait until it is too late to act, when these injustices are only memories that live safely in the past.