Harsh treatment of immigrant youth exposes an unjust system

Harsh treatment of immigrant youth exposes an unjust system
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The following is a guest blog post from the National Education Association and National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild:

Eleven months ago, high school students Pedro and Jaime were detained by the Department of Homeland Security. They remain locked up indefinitely in privately run immigration prisons deep in rural Georgia, torn from their families, far from their communities, robbed of their opportunity to finish high school and facing deportation.

Jaime and Pedro entered the country from Central America when they were children, making the long, harrowing journey to escape unlivable and dangerous conditions. But on January 23, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a series of brutal raids, called "Operation Border Guardian," intended to deter border crossings by Central American refugees. The raids swept up students and terrified communities across the South.

Families in North Carolina and Georgia reported seeing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waiting in unmarked cars near school bus stops, grabbing students on their way to school, entering homes without permission and demanding fingerprints and identification from anyone who "looked like" an immigrant. One mother said she believed her son had been kidnapped; it was hours before she knew DHS had forcibly taken her child and incarcerated him hundreds of miles from home.

Imagine how terrified you would be if your loved one went missing with no trace. Such tactics are not only degrading and dehumanizing. They are cruel. And now they are a way of life in North Carolina and Georgia.

But the cruelty does not end with overly aggressive and possibly unconstitutional raids; the raids are just the beginning of the nightmare. After being picked up, young people and adults alike are subject to immigration bond amounts that far exceed the national average. That means they are left to languish for months in detention while their families are powerless to help. Nevertheless, DHS, one of the largest jailers in the country, refuses to acknowledge that there is a system-wide problem, especially evident in the South.

Corporate immigration prisons, pervasive in the South, are a huge contributor to the mass incarceration of youth of color. North Carolina, Florida and Georgia--among the top destinations for Latino immigrants--are host to several of these prisons, each confining thousands in inhumane, brutal conditions, often without proper food or medical care, casually threatened with solitary confinement and deportation back to the violence they fled. Georgia is one of the five states with the highest number of immigrant detainees. That's where Pedro and Jaime wound up.

Educators are rallying for the fairness, justice and opportunity for an education that all these students deserve. They are joining others in demanding the release of the teens and adults who are in immigration prisons, asking for immediate temporary protected status to halt the raids, and calling for an overhaul of our immigration system.

Members of the Durham Association of Educators and the North Carolina State Education Association have traveled to Washington with student activists to lobby Congress and meet with DHS officials. They have marched with other activists and human rights organizations, families and legal advocates. Students from North Carolina and Georgia have stood on the frontlines with many of our nation's moral leaders, including Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, who argues that "snatching kids from bus stops" is violence, another example of the criminalization of black and brown youth.

This outcry has helped secure the freedom of some detainees, such as Wildin Acosta, a Durham teenager whose story has been widely chronicled. Wildin's release was followed by the release of a handful of other young men and women: Yefri, Josue, Yosselin, Pascual. Yet, so many more--including Pedro and Jaime--remain unjustly incarcerated.

Our immigration system is broken. But we cannot allow it to break our youth. Ending private prisons is a start. Temporary protected status would provide a measure of stability for youth fleeing violence and ensure their education can come first. We must address the failed policies that allow the overreliance on corporate prisons and the devaluation of black and brown bodies. All students--regardless of where they are from or their immigration status--warrant nothing less.

Paromita Shah, Associate Director, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild

Rocío Inclán, Senior Director, Center for Social Justice, National Education Association

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