The United States is home to the largest immigration detention system in the world. It is estimated that between 380,000 to 442,000 individuals are detained each year. Over the last decade the detention system has grown an estimated 75%, and cost taxpayers more than 2 billion dollars annually. What most people don't realize is that the majority of these facilities are actually private for profit prisons. A deeper examination of our current immigration policies reveals the development of a border-to-prison pipeline, profiting off of the labor and detention of undocumented immigrants.
The school-to-prison pipeline has long been discussed as a conceptual model for mass incarceration, racial inequality and the educational failures of the United States. The border-to-prison pipeline is by no means a comprehensive overview of the issue of undocumented immigration in the United States, but instead a theoretical concept that I believe can be useful in identifying root causes and potential benefactors of the status quo. The issue is particularly concerning not only in terms of policy discussions about borders, globalization and the refugee crisis but the fact that it is being implemented on a global scale.
Many of the immigrants in detention are not criminals, nor have they ever committed a criminal defense. Despite the attempts by some to paint undocumented immigrants as criminals, being undocumented is actually a civil violation, not a criminal offense. Many are detained at the US border while seeking asylum, or are picked up after years of living clandestinely. Each year thousands of men, women and even children are imprisoned. Often times those who arrive at the border seeking asylum are imprisoned for months in medium security federal prisons, mixed in with the general population. These detainees are not guaranteed access to an attorney, and are often pressured into signing their own deportation orders.
We begin with an important question that is often left out of debates on immigration. Why do people leave their homes, risk a dangerous trip across a desert and come to a land in which they are essentially treated as an inferior caste for their entire lives? The answer often lies in the economic relations between nation states, employers and employees, individuals and capital.
Mexico offers an interesting and practical case study for how our economic policies can directly impact immigration. A popular saying in Mexico is; Sin Maíz, No Hay Paíz (Without Corn, There Is No Country). The proverb is much closer to the truth then most would imagine. Corn was historically a staple crop in Mexico, providing employment, export goods and subsistence. Following the implementation of NAFTA, the Mexican government cut their corn subsidy for all but the largest producers, and removed restrictions on corn imported from the United States.
The United States heavily subsidizes corn, allowing it to be produced cheaply, and in turn sold at bare bottom prices on the international market. As a result corn prices fell an estimated 70% in Mexico. Over time an estimated two million Mexican farm were forced to give up their farms and look to wage labor as a means for survival. Instead of providing Mexico with an improved economy, NAFTA has led to an estimated 300% increase in illegal immigration and placed downward pressure on wages.
Those who have read the Grapes of Wrath may recall the conditions which forced the Joad family to sell their farm, pack up their belongings and move West. A similar fate awaited those who grew their own crops in Mexico. Instead of a dust bowl, Mexican farmers encountered an economic bust that made growing crops on a small farm impossible. Most could not seek an alternative field, nor could they survive on the meager wages offered in Mexican cities. However, to the north was the promise of opportunity, wages, and a chance at a better life. Some of them inevitably chose to enter the United States.
Once across the border, immigrants are readily put to use by an economic system ready to exploit them. Those who have no legal status are vulnerable in every sense of the word. Employers continue to profit off of undocumented labor by offering undermarket wages, unsafe work conditions and no benefits. Any attempts to organize labor, or demand rights are met with threats of deportation. Those who are arrested are sent to private prisons, where they not only create profit through filling bed quotas, but are put to work inside the government contracted facilities for as little as $3 a day. Thus the border-to-prison chain of profit is complete.
It is hardly a surprise that the status quo is to continue to allow undocumented individuals to cross the border, yet stubbornly insist that they remain part of a marginalized caste in society, exploited and mistreated at every turn until every last bit of profit is made before they are sent back across the border, only to repeat the cycle.
There was once a period in history in which capital was immobile, and people could freely travel across borders, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. Today, capital is mobile, as evidenced by the destruction of American manufacturing industry, and people are immobile. The rights we once found sacred are stripped from individuals and instead written to protect profit and capital.
There are things we can do to fight this. We can call for Congress to end the shameful detention bed quota, and end unnecessary detentions, especially for women and children. Demanding that individuals seeking asylum are provided adequate due process and access to legal counsel. We can also call for a meaningful reform in our immigration system, one which provides true pathways to equality for those who reside in this country. We can call out companies and private entities who unfairly exploit the labor of undocumented individuals and profit off of their misery.
We must also understand how our trade agreements, regional policies and wars have contributed to the problems. This includes past policies which have created the conditions for gang violence and corrupt regimes in the region.
Today we look back at the interment of the Japanese as shameful period in our history. I wholeheartedly believe that in decades to come we will be similarly outraged by the for profit detention of women and children seeking asylum. There is no easy solution to the deep seated economic problems that create the present border to prison pipeline, but we must begin by identifying those who are profiting from the status quo and stonewalling a solution.