By Peggy Kieschnick.
H.R. 2222, transformative legislation that targets the inhumane conditions of detention centers and protects the rights of immigrants, can bring America closer to healing one of its most divisive issues.
When did it become a crime to seek safety? When did a parent become a criminal for wanting a better life for her child? When did a country that takes pride in a poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” become a country that builds walls to keep people out and builds prisons to hold those who dare to cross its borders?
In 1994 the United States detained an average of 6,785 immigrants a year. By 2019 the number had catapulted to over 50,000. (For a great discussion of how we got to this place, see The Guardian’s “Detained" a four-part video on how we got from detaining fewer than 7,000 a year to where we are today.)
As we see the images of children and families desperate to enter the country and hear the rhetoric of hate, it is tempting to despair. It is tempting to believe that there is nothing we can do. It is tempting to believe that our immigration system is broken beyond repair.
But in reality, there are things we can do. Yes, the problems are complex. Yes, our system is broken, but its failure is not irrevocable. There are, in fact, things we can do to create an immigration system that works.
This month, U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and U.S. Representative Adam Smith (WA-09) re-introduced the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, H.R. 2222. The bill proposes three common sense changes: 1. End the use of for-profit detention centers; 2. Prohibit the sentencing of detained immigrants to solitary confinement; and 3. Provide all detained immigrants with fair bond and custody hearings within 48 hours of arrest.
Here is why these changes would matter:
For-profit detention centers: Today, over 70% of people being held in immigrant detention are held in for-profit facilities, according to the National Immigrant Center (Immigration Detention Oversight and Accountability Toolkit 4 Updated May 2019). For-profit prisons are not the only reason we have incarcerated so many, but they are certainly a part of the problem. For-profit companies have a vested interest in policies that encourage incarceration – and they have the money to back the policies they seek.
Solitary Confinement: Conditions in many detention centers are horrific, leaving the individuals being held without access to soap and water and basic healthcare. Punishments such as solitary confinement are meted out and individuals are given little or no access to legal recourse and representation.
Fair and timely bond and custody hearings within 48 hours of arrest: International law allows people who have a “well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin” to apply for asylum in another country. But in the United States, rather than allow people requesting asylum to live in a community while they await their day in court, we detain them – sometimes for months and even years. We then exacerbate the problem, by setting bonds that are out of reach. The minimum bond is $1,500 but it is not uncommon for individuals to be required to post bonds that are many thousands of dollars.
H.R. 2222 will not fix everything but it is an important first step to create a more fair and humane immigration system. Seeking a better life for yourself and your family does not make you a criminal and the United States, of all places, should understand this and put into place a system worthy of our ideals.
Please contact your representatives in Congress and ask them to support H.R. 2222.
About the author
Peggy Kieschnick has lived in Dover since 1986 and is the beneficiary of ancestors who had the courage to seek a better life and a country that recognized their humanity and potential and welcomed them as new Americans. She is the owner of Kieschnick Consulting Services and works with nonprofit organizations across the state. She is also a founding member of the Seacoast Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.