By Yolanda Chávez Leyva
Imagine secret jails.
People crowded together with no place to sit.
Denied showers for weeks.
Forced to sleep on the floor.
Desperate families unable to locate their loved ones.
Legal assistance almost impossible to access because lawyers don’t know where their clients are.
Government officials bragging about disappearing people.
This is not Chile in the 1970s after the Pinochet military coup. It’s suburban United States, today.
The Nation magazine recently published a shocking report on the secret jails maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) all across the United States.
Located in unmarked subfield offices, often in business parks nestled amid local businesses, immigrants are held in conditions that are no longer deemed acceptable for terrorists.
Confronted by a system that is failing, countless people are detained each day, hidden from public knowledge. Among the hundreds are not only people without papers but also legal residents, people seeking asylum, victims of human trafficking and even U.S.-born citizens who have been caught up in immigration raids.
According to Amnesty International’s 2009 report, “Jailed Without Justice,” approximately 30,000 people are in ICE detention on any given day. There are about 300,000 detained annually, and the number is rising. Some are placed in ICE detention centers, local jails, privately contracted centers, and others in the network of secret jails that have come to light only in the past few months.
“If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear,” James Pend-ergraph, then-executive director of ICE’s Office of State and Local Coordination, chillingly told a 2008 audience.
Supporters of detention practices will say that those who come to this country illegally deserve what they get and that they have no rights. They will say that this experience will be an example to others who plan to cross the border illegally. Some extremists will even say that this treatment is mild.
But I don’t believe most Americans would support such things.
There is some hope.
In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center, and the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker LLP won a lawsuit that has improved conditions at B-18, one of the most horrendous secret jails, housed in downtown Los Angeles. Two pieces of legislation have been introduced in the U.S. Senate, the Protect U.S. Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act and another demanding safe treatment and reduced abuse in the detention system.
The Obama administration has the opportunity to live up to its reported commitment to a detention system that is humane, safe, and legal. But, really, it’s up to us to speak up and to affirm that all people are worthy of humane treatment, regardless of their immigrant status.
In the United States, we shouldn’t be disappearing people.
Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican American and border histories. She can be reached at email@example.com.