May 26, 2015
Co-authored by Jenny Zhao and Anoop Prasad, Immigrant Rights Program
Earlier this month, after more than six months in immigration detention, Benito Flores won his case and went home to his wife and children. The immigration judge granted him a green card as a longtime community member of good moral character whose U.S. citizen family would suffer enormously if he were deported.
The decision was a relief but left us wondering: why did Benito have to be jailed while his immigration case was being resolved? Why was his family forced into homelessness and why were his three children left to wonder if their father would ever come back?
First, Benito was in detention because he is poor. A farmworker in California’s Central Valley, he provided for his family by harvesting grapes and almonds. The judge had set a $7,500 bond that Benito could have paid to secure his release. That amount was far out of reach for his wife, who had already been evicted without Benito’s income. The entire family was punished for their poverty. For tens of thousands of immigrants each year, immigration detention is a modern day debtors’ prison.
Second, Benito was in detention because of the Obama administration’s immigration “enforcement priorities,” which deploy immigration officers against those who are labeled criminals. Years ago, Benito was pulled over while helping a friend move his car a couple of blocks and picked up a conviction for driving under the influence. That conviction alone made him an enforcement priority, no matter the circumstances of the offense or his family circumstances. We asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to pursue Benito’s deportation because his wife and children have health problems and depend on him for support; they flatly denied our request. Ironically, Obama’s deportation relief program for parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders, which is temporarily stalled in the courts, wouldn’t have helped Benito at all. With the DUI conviction, he is automatically ineligible. The administration’s targeting of “felons not families” apparently means deporting people like Benito.
Third, Benito was in detention because incarceration exploits low-income people of color for profit. Congress requires ICE to pay for 34,000 immigration detention beds in jails and private prisons around the country. Unsurprisingly, the private prison industry spends millions of dollars lobbying to maintain this quota of immigrants who must be locked up for no logical reason. County governments that collaborate with ICE also profit from the bed quota. In return for detaining Benito for six months, the Sacramento County Sheriff received tens of thousands of dollars through its contract to jail immigrants on ICE’s behalf.
While Benito was in detention, his eight-year-old constantly demanded an explanation that her mother could not provide, his seven-year-old son developed anemia from refusing to eat, and his four-year-old son feared that his mother might abandon him too after dropping him off at preschool. Benito’s ordeal in immigration detention is over, but his children won’t soon recover from the trauma of having their father senselessly torn from them.