We’re creating debtor’s prisons for immigrants

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal. Despite their abolition, however, low-income people in the United States are being incarcerated for being unable to afford legal fees, and it creates a vicious cycle as imprisonment makes it impossible to work and pay fees off, deprives families of income, and tears communities apart. Thanks to intersectional economic inequalities, many people trapped in this system are also people of colour, and/or disabled, entrenching systemic poverty across marginalised classes in America.

But it’s not just US citizens who are facing the reality of being jailed because they cannot afford the high costs of the court system. It’s happening to immigrants, too, within the larger context of a really horrific immigration detention system. Because immigrants aren’t citizens, the civil rights that extend to us do not cover them, which is why it’s perfectly legal to hold them in detention for weeks, months, or even years while they await trial — people who have not gone through the legal system are forced to endure conditions like overcrowding, poor nutrition, lack of medical care, physical abuse, rape, and other privations in the name of protecting the United States from the horrors of undocumented immigrants.

And now, the ACLU charges, undocumented immigrants are being caught in modern-day debtor’s prisons too. Here’s how it works: When citizens come before a judge after being charged, typically they are offered release on bail. The amount of bail varies, depending on the degree of flight risk. In some cases, people can pay a deposit with property as security. In some cases, people are released without any bail at all thanks to the nature of their crime and minimal concerns about flight. When people have difficulty affording bail, the court may agree to reduce the amount to recognise the hardship, if they don’t pose a flight risk and/or alternative monitoring systems are available.

Some people do stay in jail because they cannot afford bail, and this is not okay. But there’s at least the rough framework of a system that creates mechanisms for getting out. For immigrants, however, courts are setting extremely high bail amounts and refusing to address them, even if people don’t pose a flight risk and even, NPR points out, when tools like electronic monitoring are available. The US already dehumanises immigrants, criminalising them as human beings rather than viewing them as people who lack proper immigration documentation — they’re ‘illegals,’ as conservatives like to remind us.

But this practice is even more troubling, because it leaves people in jail for extended periods of time while they wait for trials in a nation where immigration courts are extremely backed up and they may have to wait weeks, months, or again years for hearings. Family members and supporters may be unable to come forward and help with bail because they fear being prosecuted themselves if their immigration status is cloudy. An amount like $2,000, which might be in reach for a fair number of citizens, is just not achievable.

This is unacceptable on its face: I am an abolitionist and I do not support incarceration, period, but I really do not support extended detention for people who have not even gone to trial. We’re punishing people even though they haven’t been convicted — in a country that claims to treasure ‘innocent until proved guilty.’ This should apply to everyone, not just the privileged, and the fact that it does not really speaks poorly of us as a nation.

It’s also a huge problem from a utilitarian perspective: It’s expensive to incarcerate people, especially given that most immigrants are detained at privatised facilities with costly government contracts. It costs approximately $159 dollars per day to detain an individual immigrant. The government, in other words, is spending more on detention than the price of bail. It would be significantly cheaper to offer release under a reduced or waived bail with requirements to adhere with other terms like wearing a monitor.

I cannot stress enough how ridiculous this is. My tax dollars are paying for what amounts to illegal detention and a violation of multiple civil rights. I am in essence subsidizing the abridgment of the bill of rights, which should extend to every single person in the United States, in any setting. I don’t care if someone is undocumented or not, guilty or not, I care that someone has access to the same civil rights I do, which should include protections against unlawful detention.

There’s a lot of waste in the US government, often because of practices like this, and it’s really infuriating. Short-sighted, discriminatory policies target people who are extremely vulnerable, and creates a climate where encroachment on civil rights grows acceptable. As soon as the crack in that dam appears, the whole thing is set to rupture, and that’s where we are with incarceration and civil rights. Maybe people don’t care about the huge problems with immigration detention in the US (which speaks poorly of them), but they should worry about both the social and fiscal implications, because this practice costs a lot of money, and it also normalises activities like imprisoning people who are not guilty.

In a country that repeatedly goes into paroxysms over the budget, it seems ludicrous to blatantly ignore areas where the budget could be trimmed. It’s also ludicrous to act like civil rights are something selective, available for some people but not others. That’s not how this works. The Founders undoubtedly believed that civil rights were selective (which is why they wrote pro-slavery language into the Constitution and denied many groups the right to vote), but I think we can get over the Founder worship at this point and act like human beings.

Image: Immigrants, masha krasnova-shabaeva, Flickr