Saturday, September 11, 2021

NYT Guest Essay: The Unnecessary Cruelty of America’s Immigration System

Otay Mesa Detention Center, Photo by BBC World Service
CC BY-NC 2.0

Today, the NYT published an opinion piece/guest essay by migration journalist Lauren Markham titled The Unnecessary Cruelty of America’s Immigration System.

The focus of Markham's essay is the United States' problematic reliance on immigration detention. As Markham writes, this country has "a policy of deterrence by detention: to make life so unpleasant that immigrants opt to go home on their own accord, or never come at all."

She posits that there are alternatives to detention (ATD), if only we're willing to look abroad for ideas. Spain, Belgium, and Sweeden offer migrants housing and social services in exchange for regular check-ins with immigration officials.

Even looking closer to home, Markham notes that various ATD approaches have been tried in the United States, and compliance rates with those programs have been high. Beyond compliance rates, and the human benefits of getting out of detention, ATDs are significantly cheaper than detention, she highlights. Bonus.

And yet, this nation continues to make the active decision to detain thousands on thousands year after year. And that, I think, takes us to where Markham's article starts: Detention is intentional. It's an intentional choice to place migrants behind bars. And it's an intentional choice for that behind-bars experience to be unbearably bad. The system, as Markham's own essay confirms, at least anecdotally, is effectively bad in that it genuinely deters people from coming to the United States and it entices people who might have valid claims for staying here to give up and leave as their only guaranteed route out of custody. As long as the United States wants to actively deter migration from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, I imagine Markham's pleas for a humanitarian and cost-effective ATDs will fall on deaf ears.


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