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The Traumas of Immigration Law

Created: 19 March, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
8 min read

It began as an ordinary academic presentation. Backed by a power-point, sociologist Alison Newby showed a crowd at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces how more than 400 public and privately-contracted immigrant detention facilities imprison more than 440,000 people,  at a cost surpassing $1.7 billion annually to the taxpayers.

“Not only are families potentially losing their breadwinners, it’s costing us to keep people in immigration detention,” Newby said, adding $95 per day on average is spent to detain an immigrant.

Newby’s talk hit home. In February, Texas-based Corplan Corrections went before the Las Cruces City Council with a plan to build what company representative Toby Michael was quoted as calling a “family residential center” for mainly women and child immigrants. In the view of critics, the envisioned facility is a buffed-up prison. Recently, Corplan made the same proposal to the city government in Benson, Arizona.

While ample attention has been placed on the dramatic increase in immigrant detention since the Bush administration, Newby traced the phenomenon to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both of which passed in 1996.

According to the NMSU professor, the laws expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” to encompass minor crimes for which no jail time was served, thus making greater numbers of immigrants eligible for detention and deportation. Legal reforms virtually eliminated judicial discretion to take into account individual histories, family ties and even the nature of the crime, Newby said.

A fundamental contradiction of the current system, she argued, is that violations of civil immigration laws are treated as criminal offenses without the corresponding rights to a speedy trial, rules of disclosure, a court-appointed attorney and other bedrock legal guarantees of the US justice system.

“None of this matters. The judge’s hands are potentially tied as well,” Newby said.

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Then Newby got personal. She recalled that morning a little more than one year ago, on February 28, 2009, when men came knocking on her door. Representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agents spirited away Newby’s Cuban immigrant husband and charged him with an immigration law violation because of a prior drug conviction. Outside the couple’s home where their two children witnessed the arrest, several SUVs with armed men awaited, in a deployment Newby said “seemed like overkill.”

Incarcerated in a detention center in neighboring El Paso, Texas, Newby’s husband was housed with hundreds of other prisoners awaiting their fates.

Navigating a legal maze, the detainee was afforded 15-minute contact visits with his children under the watchful eyes of  guards. As a Cuban national, he could not be readily deported, because the Cuban government would not accept him back home. Instead, the detainee was hustled off to citizenship interviews where he sat shackled next to children getting vaccinations, according to Newby.

In the El Paso detention center, some work was available for inmates at the rate of one dollar per day. “I don’t know about the legality of the US government employing (immigrant detainees), and some of them may not have documents,” Newby quipped, sending chuckles rippling through the audience.

Newby said her husband was finally released after spending nearly one year in detention; he still awaits final disposition of his case. “This is an extremely horrific Kafkaes-que system,” charged the sociologist. “It is ripping families apart…I don’t know if we are any safer.”

Sponsored by NMSU’s Center for Latin American and Border Studies and International Relations Institute, Newby’s talk resonated in other presentations at a conference on immigration and human rights held at the university’s main Las Cruces campus earlier this month. Many speakers examined the impact of toughened immigration law enforcement on children, families and communities in the New Mexico borderlands and beyond.

Nicholas Dagones, regional manager of protective services for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, touched on thorny situations in which his agency’s staff come into custody of minors whose immigrant parents are detained.

Since many families have citizen and undocumented parents, the mixed status of many immigrant households creates complications, Dagones said.

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Undocumented children who are in state custody could face deportation when they turn 18, according to the child advocate. To address individual cases, the state government of New Mexico works with the Mexican Consulate, he said.

Dr. Pat Sandau-Beckler of NMSU’s School of Social Work told the New Mexico conference researchers have detected Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome in many children whose immigrant parents have been arrested. According to Sandau-Beckler, three of every four such children experience eating and sleeping problems. Adolescents, she said, have been observed more withdrawn than even younger children.

“Families of mixed status along the US-Mexico border are living under siege,” contended Vicky Gaubeca,  director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces. “The only part of the economy that seems to be growing is the law enforcement economy.

Calling for family protection, Gaubeca and other presenters urged sweeping reforms to the immigration law system.

Together with other New Mexico immigrant rights activists, the ACLU participates in the Task Force for Immigration Advocacy and Services (TIAS), a two-year-old initiative of different service providers and advocates. The task force supports measures that will ensure family unity, increase possibilities for citizenship and residence, uphold equal rights for all workers, end local enforcement of federal immigration laws, reform detention standards, eliminate privatized immigrant prisons, and restore due process and constitutional rights to all regardless of immigration status.

Johnny Young, executive director of migration and refugee services for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. D.C., joined other speakers in Las Cruces in calling for reform. The ordeal of Newby’s family, Young said, is a “vivid example” of a “broken” immigration system.

A former US ambassador to Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain and Slovenia, Young said the Roman Catholic leadership organization has an 80-year history of involvement in immigration issues, and has helped settle about one million new immigrants to the US since 1975.

“This is part of our religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition, welcoming the stranger,” Young said.

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Currently, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is mounting a campaign to send three million postcards to Congress in support of immigration law reforms that include a pathway to legalization for undocumented residents, a new guest worker program and the elimination of detention centers. The bishops also support a March 21 pro-immigrant rally in Washington that will include calls to pass an immigration reform bill sponsored by Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.

Although Young voiced confidence that momentum was building on the side of reform advocates, opponents of legalizing undocumented residents are also gearing up for action. For instance, members of the Tea Party movement and their allies plan numerous rallies across the United States on April 15.

“Despite the fake polls, bought and paid for by the Open Borders Lobby groups, the truth remains that 80 percent of Americans oppose Amnesty for illegal aliens and turning millions of illegals into voters would have a catastrophic effect on America,” said William Green of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC in a statement this week.

“We will be sending tens of thousands of people out to support Tea Party events on April 15 to properly present public opposition to illegal immigration and Amnesty for illegals,” Green said. To help organize opposition to the Gutierrez bill and related proposals, the Tea Party Against Amnesty has set up a website at

Broadening their reach, anti-amnesty groups are also utilizing Twitter and Facebook to mobilize.

The Gutierrez bill does not advocate blanket amnesty, but proposes a $500 fine as part of a package of steps leading to the legalization of undocumented residents.

Immigration law reform was at the center of a flurry of activity in Washington on Thursday, March 11, when President Obama met with two key senators, Republican Lindsay Graham and Democrat Charles Schumer, to discuss prospects for passing legislation. According to a dispatch from the Associated Press, Obama earlier met with the National Council of La Raza and other immigrant advocates, assuring the activists he was still committed to immigration reforms.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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