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Senior Correspondent

Locking Up Immigrants

By way of 95-year-old Robert M. Morgenthau, who was District Attorney of New York County for 44 years (he retired in 2009), comes some stunning news for many of us in “blissful ignorance.” In the current issue of The Nation, Morgenthau brings us up-to-date on a little-noted national tragedy. In so many words, he says, it’s time to end the immigrant detention quota.

Morgenthau was one of the country’s most respected  D.A.s. In The Nation article, he lets the many ignorant among us — including myself — in on one of the most shameful of secrets. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was reading Charles Dickens telling the story of the exploitation of the poor in the plutocratic England of the 19th century.

But Robert Morgenthau, unlike Dickens, did not grow up poor. His father, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, neighbor, and friend; Robert Morgenthau’s grandfather was Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s secretary to the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

At the heart of the matter is that “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps at least 34,000 immigrants locked up while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court.” It is not because many of these detainees are dangerous or likely to skip their day in court, he says, “but because ICE has to meet an arbitrary quota set by Congress.” The allotment, Morgenthau declares, commonly known as the “detention-bed mandate,” is “a disgrace” and should be done away with. In April 2013, he points out, that when she was Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that immigrants should be detained for being threats to public safety… “not an arbitrary bed number.”

Immigration detainees, as he tells us, have not been convicted of any crime, and many are eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. “They should not be languishing for months – sometimes for years in detention facilities. Detainees who are considered… a risk can be outfitted instead more cheaply and more humanely with electronic ankle bracelets ensuring that they will show up for their hearings.”

Yet the detainee quota “persists” for for-profit private prisons holding more than half of all immigration detainees. The “private-prison companies,” he continues, “have no incentive to keep immigrants out of detention, because these companies are paid per bed. Even a small reduction in the quota would be a hit to their bottom line.”

That is why, he asserts, they have poured money into campaign contributions, and lobbying efforts. One private-prison company, for instance, spent more than $13 million between 2005 and 2013 on lobbying. According to Morgenthau, it costs $2 billion a year to imprison enough people to meet the quota — about 40 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — roughly 40 percent of ICE’s $5.3-billion budget for fiscal 2014.

In publishing the article, Morgenthau hopes to raise public awareness of the detainee quota because… “many people do not even know that it exists. Because of this fact, the quota has so far managed to avoid public outrage and continue in existence, thanks mainly to the money and efforts of self-interested private-prison operators and right-wing advocates of treating immigrants harshly.”

“The public’s blissful ignorance regarding the quota,” he adds, “does not excuse Congress from doing the right thing and getting rid of it.”

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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