America, You Must Be Born Again!

The Immigration Industrial Complex

Text and photos by Stephen Pavey

O yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be! ~Langston Hughes

stop low priority deportationsAs America faces the challenge of immigration reform in 2013, I begin with this question: does the us have an immigrant rights problem or a freedom and justice problem? After spending a great deal of time in local communities across the country—with undocumented youth fighting against the proliferation of anti-immigrant legislation and the expansion of an industrial complex that detains and deports record numbers of immigrants—my answer to that question is that we have a freedom and justice problem. We must not give up on our struggle for freedom in our shortsighted immediate fight for rights!

America is not the land of the free. What's more, this is not a problem that will be fixed merely at the level of public policy or even by winning comprehensive immigration reform. The problem has never been at the level of legislation for rights but rather at the root level of a value system embodied in an unequal political-economic order that benefits those few with power. Sure, legislation for immigrant rights would help—but at what cost?

We are facing a crisis of freedom and justice in America. I first began moving to this realization through the poetry and activism of my friend and guide Marco Saavedra. An undocumented activist and artist, Saavedra writes:

This relationship between us—the displaced and disenfranchised—and the entire body politic has played out many a time before and is happening yet again. The future of the undocumented community determines the future of the nation—for the undocumented identity (and indictment) is a metaphor of the country. Now, in another attempt to purchase the Latino vote, the parties are at it again, again negotiating what rights to adjudicate for whom—blind to the reality that freedom cannot be determined for other people.(1)

Drawing from James Baldwin and the black-led struggles for freedom, Saavedra does several things for us. He connects immigrant justice to other forms of oppression both historically and in the present. He helps us to see the intersectionality of all struggles for freedom. But he further disturbs us, asking us to consider whether civil rights were won with compromises at the cost of justice and freedom. Baldwin and Saavedra suggest that the problem before us is not the problem of the "n****r" or the "illegal," but rather why a nation and a people invented it. Saavedra asks, "If I'm not illegal, what does that make you?" The use of "illegal" then, becomes "more an indictment than an identity."(2) This is a more fundamental problem of power, or access to power, that severely limits freedom and justice rather than a problem of immigrant or civil rights. As Saavedra updates Baldwin for today:

What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n****r (ILLEGAL) in the first place. Because I'm not a n****r (ILLEGAL), I am a man (HUMAN), but if you think I'm a n****r (ILLEGAL), it means you need it…if I'm not a n****r (ILLEGAL) here, and if you invented him (you, the white people, invented him), then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.(3)

This is not to say that our brothers and sisters who are working on immigration reform through legislation should stop, if this is the work they feel called to. But we should not be blind to the fact that there will always be compromises when legislating for freedom and justice. Both parties are bargaining for reform based on uncompromising commitments to power brokers set on maintaining a broken political-economic system that ensures a particular power structure continues. So, yes, let's commit to fighting for immigrant rights, but let's also commit to the more difficult work of transforming America toward freedom and justice. Injustice and the lack of freedom in the US is rooted in a deeply pathological economic system, brokered by a political system and morally sanctioned by a religious system—and it's an unholy alliance.

America, you must be born again!when injustice becomes law

The growth of an immigration industrial complex

¡Ya basta! We've had enough empty rhetoric from politicians, including President Obama. As we begin to hear (again) promises of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, we must say, "Enough is enough!" Before political work begins to heal the wound, the knife needs to be pulled out. Obama's administration deported a record number 409,849 immigrants in 2012,(4) and no efforts have been made to reduce detentions and deportations in 2013. Among those deported between 2010-12, nearly 205,000 were parents of a US citizen child.(5) Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), commenting on these recent statistics in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, said, "We are the one country that orphans children who have parents."(6)

Drawing attention to Obama and the Democrats' complicity does not absolve the Republicans of their part in the creation of this immigration industrial complex. This has been a bipartisan affair. Legislation (IIRIRA)(7) requiring the mandatory detention of immigrants without the right to due process was passed in 1996, and nearly every piece of security legislation since then, especially after 9/11, has contained add-ons for immigration enforcement and detention.(8) The nation's immigration detention system expanded rapidly, from an average daily population of less than 7,500 detainees in 1995 to nearly 34,000 in 2012.(9) Immigrants currently constitute the fastest growing population in federal prisons and detention facilities.(10)

These developments have given rise to what some are now calling the US "immigration industrial complex."(11) It is called an industrial complex because of the collusion between private and public sectors(12) in generating the growth of state-level anti-immigrant legislation, the development and growing implementation of 287(g) and secure communities enforcement programs, and the failure to follow ICE Director John Morton's policy memo on prosecutorial discretion(13) in the apprehension and detention of undocumented migrants.

Clear connections exist between the growth of the immigrant detention system, the political capital gained by politicians, and the large profits for a small number of private corporations. Since the creation of DHS in 2002, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has spent more than $23 million on lobbying, and the GEO Group, Inc. has spent an additional $3 million.(14) Just over half of all immigrant detainees are housed in privately owned and operated detention facilities, the majority owned by either CCA or the GEO Group.(15)

The prison industrial complex continues to expand through the unacceptable DHS practice of detaining immigrants, mostly low-priority non-criminals, for excessively long periods in which they are exposed to inexcusable conditions. This is a human rights crisis on US soil. Rapid growth in the privatization of immigrant detentions reflects US priorities for the rights of private prison corporations over the rights of human beings, in particular immigrants. In 2009, President Obama promised reforms to this immigration detention system, but research and activism with the undocumented community demonstrate that little has changed or portends change in 2013.

According to the national Immigration Forum's report, "The Math of Immigration Detention," the president requested a record-high $2 billion in funding for immigrant detention for fiscal year 2013.(16) In most cases, these detainees are low-priority, people who would qualify for prosecutorial discretion as specified in ICE Director John Morton's memo released on June 17, 2011.(17) Prosecutorial discretion refers to the authority of a law enforcement agency or officer to refrain from enforcing immigration laws against individuals considered low risk or low priority, in order to encourage the direction of ICE enforcement resources toward those who are considered risks to national security and public safety. But this is clearly not happening. A spate of recent reports by the Detention Watch Network,(18) ACLU,(19) National Immigration Forum,(20) and many other organizations confirm this grim reality.

The development of an immigration industrial complex is simply an extension of the prison industrial complex. America incarcerates more people than any other country, largely people from marginalized communities, people of color, and people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Incarceration and detainment have become in America the primary response to far too many of the social problems of disenfranchised communities.

Let's return to our opening question, "Is America the land of the free?" In the important book the New Jim Crow, longtime civil rights advocate juan crowand litigator Michelle Alexander argues that a racial caste system is entrenched in America.(21) I would extend her analysis of the new Jim Crow reality to include Juan Crow laws that criminalize immigrants. She posits that America has simply exchanged racial categories for criminal ones. One needs to look no further than the disproportionate numbers of brown and black bodies in prisons to recognize the truth of her argument. I would argue that the growth of anti-immigrant legislation that criminalizes migrants is an extension of the racial caste system in America described by Alexander.

America, you must be born again!

National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) infiltrates the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) located in Pompano Beach, Fla.

In July 2012, NIYA activists Marco Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez strategically allowed themselves to be detained by ICE in order to gain access to the inside of Broward transitional center to begin research and organizing work. After 23 days in detention, they were kicked out, but only after having collected enough data from detainees inside and their families outside to produce over 110 individual petitions(22) for low-priority individuals qualifying for prosecutorial discretion.(23)

These petitions include migrants eligible for the DREAM Act, U-visa, T-visa, VAWA petition, and asylum. The vast majority of the almost  600 detainees held daily at the BTC are non-criminals. Because there is only one judge to hear all of their cases, it can take months before a detainee's case is completed. From the data collected with NIYA, we found that it was common for an immigrant detainee to be held six to eight months before, in most cases, being deported. The cost to taxpayers is nearly $164 dollars per day per detainee.(24)

A new report, released in November 2012 by the Detention Watch Network, exposes the atrocities of the 10 worst detention centers in the country.(25) The BTC, considered by DHS to be a "model detainment center," did not make this list, but the NIYA has found identical conditions of human rights abuses in this "model" facility. What does this mean then for the more than 250 other immigration detention facilities? Criminal or not, no human being deserves to be treated this inhumanely. Among the NIYA's findings at BTC:

  • Excessive length of stay—several Sri Lankan men seeking asylum have been detained over two-and-a-half years.
  • Poor medical access—one woman, after repeated requests for medical care, was found in her own pool of blood and only then rushed to the hospital for an emergency procedure.
  • Exposure to danger—a man was raped while detained.
  • Lack of legal access—one man wrote to every pro bono lawyer on the list given to him, and each denied his request.
  • Psychological torture—this is how one man described the common experience of all detainees who wait for a meeting to appear before the judge, only to have their court date cancelled. Over a period of six months, one man appeared three times before a judge, while also having four other court dates cancelled.
  • Pressure to voluntarily deport—almost all detadeport familyinees are asked at their first court appearance, as well as at regular ICE officer visits in detention, to sign a paper for voluntary deportation.
  • Detention of non-criminals—the majority of detainees are non-criminals, many arrested on traffic violations. One man was arrested when asked for ID as a passenger of a vehicle.
  • Psychological trauma to children—many of the children of detainees receive ongoing counseling as a result of the arrest and detention of parents. One child attempted suicide.
  • Financial hardship on families—families are losing their homes and finding it hard to feed and clothe their children when the breadwinner for the family is detained.
  • Lack of sufficient federal oversight—there is little accountability between ICE agents in local communities and the administration's policy of exercising prosecutorial discretion. ICE agents have actually said they disregard the administration's policy, citing as a reason the distance and disconnect between Florida and Washington, DC.

Saavedra and Martinez were released on August 3, 2012. A letter signed by 26 Democrat members of Congress Calling for a full review of BTC was sent to DHS on September 13, 2012. Conditions remained the same. Another letter signed by 428 BTC detainees calling for a full review of BTC was sent to DHS on October 15, 2012. Conditions remained the same. Another letter signed by nine other BTC detainees calling for a full review of the policies and procedures of BTC in light of the Morton memo was sent to DHS on November 12, 2012. Conditions remain the same.

A lack of prosecutorial discretion at every level of immigration enforcement has swept non-criminals into the immigration detention complex rather than prioritizing criminals.(26) This appears to be done in order to meet quotas for politicians and make money for business people, but it is inhumane and unjust. US immigration policy and practices violate human rights at a number of levels, including the separation of families, the lack of due process, racial profiling and discrimination, arbitrary and long detentions, and exposure to inhumane experiences and mistreatment.

We need to listen to the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to the detainees within the BTC, and to their family members and demand an end to the inhumane practice of immigrant detention and deportation. We want a full review of all immigrant detention centers and demand the release of all low-priority detainees.

America, you must be born again!

21st-Century Freedom Ride

I joined the 21st-century Freedom Ride(27) from Durham, N.C., to Birmingham, Ala., for a retreat in December 2012 with African American historian Dr. Vincent Harding, who asked us to answer the question "Is another America possible?" The riders represented a diverse group of people across generations, ethnic background, and citizenship status. We came together to learn from an elder of the black-led freedom movement regarding what we could do about our own present-day struggles for prison reform, immigrant justice, ending homelessness and poverty, and abolishing war. On our journey to the retreat we stopped in downtown Atlanta for a Las Posadas, a Latino Christmas celebration, to raise awareness of immigrant injustices in our country today by walking as Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in search of lodging.

Uncle Vincent (we learned to call each other by familial names) opened our retreat with the message, "America, you must be born again!" At his feet, we learned about freedom, hope, and our journey forward to struggle for immigrant justice and freedom. He reminded us that the freedom workers never sang, "I woke up this morning with my mind set on civil rights." "That was just lazy journalism," he commented. "No, we sang, 'I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom.'" This understanding helps us with how we might jump in today to work not just for immigrant rights but also ultimately for freedom.

Harding reminded us of the significant development in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s thinking and commitments after four young black girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963. At the eulogy, King challenged America, "We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers."(28) Uncle Vincent helped us see that King moved from having a dream of racial equality to having a vision of the beloved community. And it was this move from civil rights to the struggle for freedom and justice for all that ultimately led to his assassination. In his book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Harding writes:

Just a few weeks before the bullet struck . . .King took his own sense of the American dilemma and challenge even further. By then he had come to the conclusion that the black freedom struggle was actually "exposing the evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than the superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."(29)

What we need now is not simply to advocate for public policy for immigrant rights; we must go further to challenge the system that produces such systemic evil. King identified these evils as racism, materialism, and militarism—apt descriptions for present-day America. The post-1963 King stated the following when addressing a Southern Christian Leadership Conference advisory committee in late 1967: "something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States. We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure. Power must be relocated, a radical redistribution of power must take place."(30)

A few months before his death, King spoke to SCLC staff in preparation for the Poor People's Campaign set for the spring of 1968. "We must formulate a program, and we must fashion the new tactics that will compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice," he told them.(31) In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here?, King wrote, "Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness."(32)

What would this higher destiny look like? I believe that we should consider what mass divine obedience would look like. At points in history this has also been called revival. I remember listening to Jim Wallis speak at an interfaith rally just before the failed senate vote for the Dream Act in 2010. In his speech he promised civil disobedience from the Christian church if Congress failed to pass this legislation. He said, "We're going to open our universities and colleges, and we're going to go against the laws, because they're going against the will of God." In an interview later that day, an undocumented youth activist, Gaby Pacheco, spoke of the hope gained from that solidarity, by quoting from Wallis' speech. "We're going to do civil disobedience," said Wallis, "and they're going to have to go through us to get to these students."(33)

Sadly, the church did not follow through with Wallis' promise when the legislation was voted down. But the vision Wallis had proposed remains a tempting one to consider. What would it look like for Christian colleges and univarrest blue girlersities, alongside churches, to embrace in divine obedience the marginalized and sojourner in our midst? Whatever this would look like, led by the Spirit, it would certainly require a relational component of both racial and economic reconciliation in local communities. Our undocumented brothers and sisters lead the way, through the work of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and other undocumented youth-led groups, and with their guidance we might learn what divine obedience in practice looks like.

At our retreat Harding reminded us often of activist June Jordan's admonition, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." We cannot rely on political leaders to legislate freedom. But we can begin that work today in our own communities, and it will begin, as James Baldwin tells us, with taking the poor, the marginalized, and the undocumented into our arms, embracing as brothers and sisters. When he wrote the following in a 1964 article, titled "What Price Freedom?," Baldwin might just as easily have been addressing us today:

In order for us to survive and transcend the terrible days ahead of us, the country will have to turn and take me in its arms. Now, this may sound mystical, but at the bottom that is what has got to happen, because it is not a matter of giving me this or that; it is not yours to give me. Let us be clear about that. It is not a question of whether they are going to give me any freedom. I am going to take my freedom. That problem is resolved. The real problem is the price. Not the price I will pay, but the price the country will pay. The price a white woman, man, boy, and girl will have to pay in themselves before they look on me as another human being. This metamorphosis is what we are driving toward, because without that we will perish—indeed, we are almost perishing now.(34)

America, you must be born again!

Divine obedience: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me"(35)

What would it mean then, for America—you and me—to turn and take the undocumented migrants into our arms? Are we willing to pay the price required of us to treat migrants as human beings, as brothers and sisters, and, even further, as God incarnate in the least of these? What is the price if we don't? A wise elder in the freedom movement, Jim Douglass, tells us:

Liberation has two dimensions: Freedom from the bondage of the individual self…and freedom from the extended self of social oppression…neither dimension of freedom, personal or social, can be won without suffering.(36)

Much of the violence and pain we inflict on others, both as individuals and as a society, is caused by our fear of death and lust for power. But Jesus tells us, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. . . .your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:25-33)." The freedom we seek is found in movement toward God's kingdom and justice. This is the upside-down kingdom of powerlessness and nonviolence.

The Duke Center for Reconciliation recently led a trip to Africa with the purpose of hearing stories of liberation and reconciliation. During a lakeside memorial service to remember Ugandan martyrs, an African leader said, "Ugandan Christians don't need to be more Christian, they need to be less Ugandan, Rwandan Christians less Rwandan, and American Christians less American." This says a lot about power and violence, both personal and corporate. Nation-states have usurped the role of the sovereignty of God in our lives as Christians.

America, we must be born again!

Practical steps toward humane and just immigration reform(37)

At the beginning of this year, a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight" released a framework(38) for immigration reform.(39) The following day, President Obama affirmed the senators' principles as in line with his, declaring, "Now is the time … to fix the system that's been broken for way too long."(40) President Obama's brief policy address included a demand for Congress to act in a timely manner with an immigration bill. These public commitments from legislators to take concrete steps to address our broken immigration system are long overdue good news. Unfortunately, the resulting proposals are heavy on enforcement, criminalization, and securitization that are likely to increase the dehumanization of migrants and low-wage workers.

For those who work on the technical solutions for immigration reform, listed below are suggested principles for humane reform that come from listening to grassroots immigrant communities and organizations.(41) But we do not need to wait for legislation reforms when President Obama could begin administrative reforms now by creating more accountability within US immigration enforcement. It is within the president's power right now to implement his own policy of prosecutorial discretion and begin the dismantling of the immigrant detention and deportation complex. In the president's own words, "The time is now!"

I mourn and lament the daily incarceration of over 32,000 immigrants in this country along with the daily deportations of 1,100 human beings. It is here, in concrete relationship with immigrants who are struggling, that we must all struggle as a nation if we are to move toward freedom and the presence of the kingdom. As politicians posit abstract solutions, I will listen to concrete reality and suggestions of my immigrant brothers and sisters, among them, Tania Unzueta Carrasco, who says,

How much hope can I have in the president who has deported people at a higher rate than any other in the nation's history?…This is why I have learned to keep my hopes in check. Not only because of the years without action, but also because the lives of immigrant communities have become even harder.(42)

A starting point for technical solutions for immigration reforms:

  • We must end the deportations of the vast majority of migrants, keeping families together.
  • We must close immigrant detention centers and utilize detention alternatives that are both less costly and more humane.
  • We must end all 287(g) and secure community agreements, so that local law enforcement can work on community safety.
  • We must create a pathway toward citizenship for the over 11 million undocumented migrants living and working in the US.
  • We must make border security more humane and less deadly, reducing costs to the US as well as risks to migrants.
  • We must provide for the needs of low-wage workers and their families, who are important threads in the fabric of US society, and far too often are among the most exploited and abused. Justice for those among low-wage and agricultural labor must take precedence over the demands of corporations.
  • In our local communities and states, we must resist all anti-immigrant legislation, even to the point of committing civil disobedience.
  • We must find a way to become friends with people different from ourselves, for citizens and non-citizens to get to know one another, learn from each other. Only then will we know how to love one another.
  • We must make the connections between racial justice and  economic justice. There will be no freedom and justice until we confront, challenge, and change the social relations of power that generate and maintain great inequality between the rich and the poor (of all colors). This begins the more difficult task of addressing the causes of migration due to US foreign and trade policies that prioritize the interests of corporations over people.
  • America, we must—and we can—be born again!

Steve Pavey is a senior research scientist at the One Horizon Institute in Lexington, KY. He is a member of the steering committee for the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network, as well as a close ally to the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. He is co-author, with Marco Saavedra, of the book Shadows Then Light, which explores civil disobedience in support of immigrant justice.

The photographs here capture the movement of undocumented youth utilizing civil disobedience to struggle for freedom and justice. Events shown took place from 2011-12 in Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles, Calif.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Chicago, Ill.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Washington, DC; Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta, GA.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Pompano Beach, Fla. For more information about the events behind the photos, go to 

Endnotes for this article are posted here.

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1 Response

  1. May 22, 2015

    […] publiccriminalization of migrants and refugees. This is only a further development of the expanding immigrant industrial complex. When tens of thousands of refugees from Central America showed up last summer at the US/Mexico […]

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