This week, the American Independence Day falls just as Congress works to pass a new immigration law from the Senate to the House of Representatives. It’s a critical time for those who want our immigration laws to reflect the ideals of human rights and fairness on which our country was founded.
Tens of thousands of immigrants are trapped in the United States immigration detention system, and millions more are living in this country without legal status, fearing that they could be detained at any moment. They desperately need an immigration law that respects human rights.
Americans need it, too.
Take the story of Michael and Michele: a loving, hard-working couple who were separated by Michael’s detention. Here is how Michele, a United States citizen, describes Michael's experience:
"I never thought I would have to deal with anything like what I saw Michael go through in immigration detention. I couldn’t make heads or tails of where he was or what was going on. It cost a lot of money for Michael to call me, and when he did, the stories he told were horrible. They didn’t get to exercise, the food was rotten and sometimes green, and he couldn’t see a doctor when he was sick. The guards told the detainees they were worthless and they should 'go back home.' He was put in solitary confinement for nothing, sometimes for several days at a time. After a few months, he told me he couldn’t remember what color even looked like."
Michele and her mother Kathy share Michael’s story in a new video campaign launched this week by the National Immigrant Justice Center: “Love Detained: An American Immigration Story,” which you can watch above.
Now, National Immigrant Justice Center is asking Americans to demand that Congress pass immigration reform that respects human rights.
The immigration bill that passed the Senate last week, S.744, includes some critical reforms to improve access to counsel for immigrants and expand the use of alternatives to detention. It would require United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to report to Congress about who is in its custody and restrict the use of solitary confinement. But it also would increase militarization of United States border regions and criminal prosecutions against people who enter the country without papers, hoping to work and create better lives for their families.
The ICE spent more than two billion dollars to detain more than 400,000 immigrants last year. Despite this huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars, what Michael experienced in detention was, shockingly, not unusual. The National Immigrant Justice Center provides legal services to thousands of detained immigrants every year. Medical neglect, poor treatment, bad food, and otherwise abhorrent conditions are common complaints. Where Michael’s story is unique is that he found lawyers to help him understand his rights—only 15 percent of people detained and deported have lawyers. He also had loved ones who were able to speak out about what happened to him. Too many others suffer in the obscurity of a system that has been allowed to grow out-of-control with minimal governmental oversight.
The House immigration debate is going to be rough. Right now the bills pending there would further criminalize immigrants and expand the deportation infrastructure, and none offer a roadmap to citizenship or detention system reforms.
This Independence Day, as we prepare for what’s coming in the House, NIJC is asking supporters to remember Americans like Michele and aspiring Americans like Michael, who need the promises of fairness, justice, and equality—ideals expressed by our country’s very first immigrants—to finally be realized.
This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.