"Lost in Detention" Shows Broken System

By Mary Moreno

When you're breaking deportation records, there's going to be a lot of human collateral damage, a new PBS documentary uncovered. Premiering earlier this week, Lost in Detention connects the dots between the deportation goals set by Congress and enforced by the president, the actions of field agents sweeping up undocumented immigrants wherever they can find them, and hundreds of detention centers where immigrants often suffer abuse while they await deportation or freedom.

Lost in Detention, a part of PBS's hard hitting journalism series Frontline, is hosted by award winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. Through interviews with government officials, immigration experts, immigrants and citizen children of deported immigrants, Hinojosa paints a picture of an immigration enforcement system that is in overdrive, destroying lives and showing no sign of slowing down.

"In the absence of reform, what we're left with essentially is enforcement on steroids," said Gary Segura, political scientist at Stanford University. "That is our immigration policy."

Much of the criticism over the deportations falls on President Obama who as a candidate promised to reform the system that was tearing families apart. Instead, Obama will likely deport more immigrants in one term, than former President Bush did in two.

Left to defend the deportation policies is Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of Intergovernmental Affairs, who prior to joining the White House was at the forefront of the immigration reform movement as vice president of NCLR. "As long as Congress gives us the money to deport 400,000 people a year," says Muñoz, "that's what the administration is going to do." Muñoz adds, "Even broken laws have to be enforced."

In one of the more disheartening moments of the documentary, Hinojosa asks Muñoz if the administration accepts deporting mothers who have not committed a crime as collateral damage. Muñoz answers, "... some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children."

According to Segura, the Obama Administration beefed up enforcement with the belief that it would make the ground fertile for reform. It didn't happen, and a subsequent interview with the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith makes it clear that it won't happen with this Congress, regardless of how many immigrants Obama deports.

"Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is not really enforcing the law," Smith tells Hinojosa. "Anyone in the country illegally that is apprehended or detained ought to be sent home, and not just the ones who've committed the most serious crimes... The law should be enforced."

Hinojosa later asks Muñoz if the president has enacted the Republicans' agenda on immigration with the hopes of gaining their support for comprehensive immigration reform. Muñoz denies it, saying the president doesn't expect anything in return. "What the president is doing is enforcing the law of the land."

Later, though, Hinojosa shows a clip of the president delivering a speech on immigration in El Paso that appears to contradict her words. He says, "We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they've asked for, we've done."

And it appears the administration will continue doing "the stuff they've asked for," and get nothing in return, except for even more broken families and scorn from the congressmen they're trying to appease.

To view the documentary, please visit pbs.org.


Mary Moreno is the communications director at Voto Latino. Before joining VL, she worked as a crime reporter for five newspapers and as a press secretary for two DC nonprofits. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she's a proud Texan who currently lives in DC. For other posts by Mary Moreno, click here.