We Can’t Trade a Path to Legalization in Exchange for More Border Militarization

Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, a 27-year-old, national coalition working to abolish the incarceration of immigrants in the United States, says that the domestic “immigration enforcement system and the prison-industrial complex are not separate, but are intertwined systems of oppression.” Her first book, Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition, convincingly argues that these dual systems operate in tandem, relying on a carceral logic that is focused on punishment for any and all infractions.

The heavily researched book is filled with statistics and hard facts, and offers a brief history of modern immigration detention that charts its astronomical growth over the past half century. Moreover, Shah zeroes in on the many social welfare organizations that are aiding asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented and offers a searing critique of the ways many have capitulated to mainstream fears about homeland security, crime and the need for tougher border policies.

What’s more, Unbuild Walls describes a paradigm in which some immigrants are deemed “good” and others “bad,” a dichotomy that is largely predicated on their race and country of origin.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Shah discusses the U.S.’s long history of immigrant exclusion, the need for prison abolition, and the connection between the immigration enforcement system and the prison-industrial complex.

A part of the interview can be read below.

At one point in the early 2000s, many advocates and activists called for the legalization of the 11 million undocumented people living in the country. Is that still a demand?

Yes. People continue to push for legalization although political conditions have changed. We often hear people say that we need comprehensive immigration reform but what they mean by that is never made clear. We at the Detention Watch Network don’t want to see legalization in exchange for increased border militarization or more immigrant detention or deportation. The question becomes: What sort of legalization are we willing to accept? Tradeoffs can be harmful to the movement for immigrant justice.

You write that the growth of immigrant detention and the growth of jails and prisons are two sides of the same coin. Both, you argue, need to be dismantled. Please say more about their connection.

The idea that some people should not be here in the U.S., coupled with a concern about crime, has expanded detention.

Some of the harshest immigration laws ever passed were promulgated during the Clinton administration. They were a reaction to the idea of rising crime but lawmakers just kept expanding the scope of what was considered criminal behavior. This led to widespread dehumanization of immigrants and opened the door to people like Donald Trump calling immigrants “animals.” We have failed to examine who we’re deeming “illegal” and who we’re deeming a “criminal.” We need to stop and ask why so many people in the U.S. are being warehoused in prisons, jails and detention centers.

Sanctuary cities have been on the receiving end of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s busing policy, which has sent hundreds of thousands of newcomers from the Lone Star State to cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. If anything illustrates the failure of immigration policy, this seems to be it!

Both the Democrats and the Biden administration have refused to offer any kind of counter-vision to Abbott. A robust safety net is desperately needed but it is not there, and the Biden administration has not intervened to get migrants to other places in the country or do anything to support them once they arrive in sanctuary cities. They have let Abbott dictate policy. It is infuriating.

Immigration is about people seeking work or refuge. We need to shift the paradigm away from an exclusive focus on public safety and national security. We can start by moving away from the idea of a militarized border; this will diffuse things and create a better environment for immigrants.

The government also needs to expand who is eligible for humanitarian parole and change the law to let migrants enter and re-enter the United States without being criminalized. People today feel trapped. Many want to work in the U.S. for a few years, then go back to their home country or elsewhere. Some will later want to come back. Allowing fluidity of movement would be more humane and would better meet the needs of those who migrate.

What else would make the system more humane?

First, let’s talk about so-called alternatives to incarceration like ankle monitors, phone reporting, and things like SmartLink. These tools expand the number of people under government surveillance and are dehumanizing. We also need to reduce government spending on militarism and on carceral systems whether we’re talking about ICE, Border Patrol, county jails or the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Immigrants are not disposable. They deserve better. We all deserve better.

To read the full article click here.

Eleanor J. Bader