People as Commodities: Some profit by detaining immigrants

Photo by flickr user Amy Leonard used under a Creative Commons license.

This post is by OK Policy intern Kasey Hughart. Kasey is attending the University of Tulsa as a Sociology major/Spanish minor. Aside from being simultaneously employed at three jobs and going to school full-time, she is active in advocating for immigrant rights as the co-affiliate lead for DREAM Act Oklahoma, an official affiliate within the United We DREAM National Network. Kasey hopes to pursue a career in social work after graduate school.

Look up the definition of commodity and you will find that it means “something of use, advantage, or profit” and “an exchangeable unit of economic wealth.” Things that come to mind are most likely common economic goods such as petroleum, coffee, and livestock. What about people? In 21st century America, people, and specifically undocumented immigrants, are commodities. No matter what side you take on the immigration issue, you should know that the current immigration enforcement laws are subjecting undocumented immigrants to an inhumane process where they are arrested, detained, transported across the country, and then deported in mass numbers.

For the past decade, the U.S. government has focused its efforts in enforcement-without-reform initiatives that have resulted in regular increases in government spending to operate a vast patchwork of detention facilities throughout the country. Since the creation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has spent over $2.8 billion  on efforts to deport immigrants. Under President Obama’s administration, DHS has made it a goal to deport 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year through the implementation of Secure Communities, a national database that determines which immigrants are deportable under federal law. There are plans to implement this program in each of the 3,100 state and local jails across the country by 2013.

After feeling political pressure from immigrant rights organizations, President Obama recently announced that he would focus on undocumented immigrants with actual criminal records. (Being undocumented is not a crime, it is a civil violation of the immigration process that determines who is granted the right to remain in the United States.) However, the majority of deportations carried out by DHS include people who have no criminal records at all. According to the Washington Post, as cited by the Detention Watch Network, “with roughly 1.6 million immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, the government holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses, and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines.”

Much of this is driven by profit. Although many Americans want undocumented immigrants out of the U.S., the business of detaining and expelling them has turned into a lucrative industry. A report in the Oklahoman noted that, “Millions in revenue for transporting and detaining immigrants for the federal government have financed jobs, departments and, in some cases, entire jails.”

Among the 312 city and county prisons nationwide, the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in Tulsa serves as the only detention facility in Oklahoma that allows local officials to exert federal authority for immigration enforcement. The Tulsa County Sheriff gains financially from this federal agreement, because they make $54.13 per day per federal immigration detainee, almost twice as much as the $27 per inmate paid by the state Corrections Department. According to NewsOK,  “transport and detention brought in nearly $6 million for the Tulsa County jail over an 18-month period” allowing for the sheriff department to expand from a staff of 230 to 360.

A recent analysis of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds in Tulsa County shows that only about 8 percent of the roughly 5,200 detentions since 2007 involved violent offenses. Most of the detainees were brought into ICE custody as a result of traffic violations, such as driving without a license, or minor criminal complaints. As more than 30,000 immigrants (both documented and undocumented) are detained on any given day, private prison corporations as well as city and county governments will continue to earn billions of dollars in revenue.

Children ultimately suffer the consequences of our country’s failure to find a humane, practical solution regarding immigration reform. The Applied Research Center states that “between January and June of 2011, the United States carried out more than 46,000 deportations of the parents of U.S.-citizen children,” leaving over 5,000 children in foster care. If the Department of Homeland Security continues to remove immigrants from the U.S. at the current pace, the number of U.S.-citizen children forced into foster care due to the deportation of their parents could reach as high as 15,000 within the next 5 years.

Our broken immigration system is taking a huge human and financial toll on both immigrants and U.S. citizens. Some are profiting off this system, but at the cost of billions of tax dollars and unnecessary suffering.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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