The Movement to Defund and Abolish Immigration Jails Is Winning Major Victories

Two major victories in the national movement to end immigration detention were achieved last month. These victories are a signal of future opportunities and invite us to pay attention. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer imprison immigrants at the Etowah County JailAlabama and will reduce three other prisons in the south.

A few days later, President Joe Biden sent his 2023 budget request (PDF) to Congress. It calls for a reduction of the number of immigration jails. 9,000 bedsor 26 per cent of the current funded level (34,000 bed). This was the first reduction in request for immigrant incarceration systems in modern history.

The trajectory of American immigration jails has been expansion for 40 years. More beds, more money. President Biden’s budget request signals that we’ve finally moved the needle in the opposite direction, as a result of years of popular organizing and advocacy by people in detention and communities across the country. It can feel hard to celebrate given the continued harsh realities of immigration enforcement, but we can’t lose sight of our ability to score significant wins like these.

Opposition narratives about immigration jails often focus heavily on the harms: the awful conditions, isolation, harsh treatment, and the harsh treatment. We must demand the abolition immigration jails, not only because they are an inhumane extension to the larger system mass incarceration, but also because they are key drivers of deportations.

Before the pandemic, approximately 400,000 people were held in U.S. Immigration Jails each year, some for several months or years. The ICE’s detention bed capacity determines how many people it will hold and how long. This determines whether people are deported or not. The previous administrations were often motivated to increase detention. increasing deportation programs. The system exists to facilitate deportation. It is essential to reduce its capacity to disrupt the immigrant dragnet.

Since more than a decade, budget negotiations have been fraught with disagreements over the number of beds for immigrant incarceration. The 2010 budget was drafted by Senator Robert Byrd (a Democrat from West Virginia) and required that ICE maintain a certain amount of jail beds. This became known as the “detention bed quota”. After activists and advocates targeted the quota, Congress eventually removed the language during Donald Trump’s administration. ICE employed a different strategy to expand the immigration prison system. overspending its budgetCongress to bail it out, thus increasing the capacity every year. This strategy saw ICE increase civil immigrant incarceration from its current peak of 55,000 beds to its maximum in 2019, which was 55,000 beds.

In 2017, a wide variety of organizations came together and formed the Defund Hate coalition to oppose Trump’s supplemental funding request for the border wall, more ICE and Border Patrol agents, and more detention beds. Through consistent engagement with members of Congress and public exposure of ICE’s underhanded tactics, the coalition popularized the call to defund ICE’s immigration jails. One notorious example is ICE divertedMoney for Federal Emergency Management Agency detention beds during hurricane season, even though another hurricane was headed to the East Coast.

Since its inception, the coalition successfully blocked $12Billion in additional funding to DHS. Without the call to defund ICE launched in 2017, we likely wouldn’t be seeing this reduction in immigration jail capacity in the president’s budget request in 2022.

In addition to seeking to defund ICE, calling for closure of specific “detention centers” has been a central strategy of the movement to end immigration jails. Organizers and advocates from across the country have succeeded in ending ICE detention at nearly a dozen county jails over the past year through local, state, and federal campaigns. This is why the Etowah County Jail’s ICE detention was ended is a significant victory. Etowah, which has been a notorious immigrant prison for 24 years, has come to symbolize the entire system.

Most Etowah residents were transferred from other states. Without outdoor recreation, immigrants could spend months to years in jail without ever leaving the prison. The conditions at Etowah were so poor that Barack Obama’s administration tried to stop using it in 2011, but Republican lawmakers from Alabama intervened by threatening to reduce ICE’s budget if the federal government ended the contract. Organizers, lawyers, advocates, journalists, and others who were detained for years exposed the terrible conditions, filed lawsuits, and protested. The Shut Down Etowah campaign was created in 2015 to end the contract, and support those who were inside. This campaign was joined by others calling for the end of the contract and support for those inside. Communities Not Cages to end contracts at ICE’s existing immigration jails and stop any further expansion.

Many advocates are skeptical of the idea of closing immigration jails to dismantle the system. They claim that if one detention facility closes, another will open. This is why it is so important to combine the calls for defunding ICE and shutting down facilities. It’s not just about ending one contract or a series of contracts. Local campaigns help us to make the case against immigrant incarceration. These campaigns connect to the community and real people whose lives were disrupted by the system and help expose how unnecessary detention is. The call to defund subsequently ensures that we shrink the “detention system” and don’t just keep playing a game of whack-a-mole.

When Biden’s budget request reducing immigration jail capacity was announced, advocates rightly pointed with alarm to the increase in funding for programs (like ankle shackling and other forms of electronic monitoring) that have only widened the net for immigrants under government surveillance. Yet, we must claim victory even if immigration jail counts decline. For years, BothThe number of detention and ecarceration has only increased. Without the movement to end immigration detention, this year would have been no other.

The expansion of e-carceration is a reminder that we must not give in to reforms that will further cement carceral immigration approaches. Defunding ICE will not only reduce the incarceration of immigrant, but it is also a critical strategy for limiting electronic monitoring of immigrant deportation proceedings. While it remains to be seen whether Congress will pass a budget with these lower numbers of detention, calling for an end both to detention and to e-carceration are essential.

The recent backlash to abolition and the call to defund assumes that the demands are too extreme and are hurting the Democrats’ approval ratings. But the demands work — we are shrinking the number of immigration jails. While there are many factors at play that led to this outcome, including exposure under Trump and pandemic border closures leading to lower numbers, it’s clear that the demands for defunding and abolition in the broader discourse on policing and prisons and by the movement to end immigration detention got us here.

We have made it clear that the immigrant incarceration system must be reduced and not expanded. It is time to defend our victories and remain bold. The status quo regarding immigration detention has changed, and we must make this the first step in our journey to abolishing it.