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by Erica Schommer

Green-Card Holders Find Change of Address Makes You a Suspect

(PNS) -- A catchy T-shirt designed by Amnesty International USA's Refugee Program has a picture of the Statue of Liberty and reads: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. AND WE'LL LOCK THEM UP.

The reason for the sarcasm: An alarming number of immigrants are being jailed while they're going through court proceedings to determine whether they can remain in this country legally. Under the current law, some people must be detained throughout the process because of prior criminal convictions. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been locking up immigrants in big numbers, including thousands who aren't required to be detained.

Thanks to the DHS' Operation Reservation Guaranteed, the number of immigrants in detention has risen from 18,000 when the operation was launched in July 2006, to 25,000 by the end of September. President Bush's budget for 2007 includes funds to increase detention bed space by 25 percent.

Facilities are going up faster than one can imagine. Last June a 2,000-bed detention center was approved for Raymondville, Texas, 45 miles from my office. I thought it would take a couple years to build, but I was wrong. By August 3, 2006, the facility was up and running. It易s now at or very near its 2,000-bed capacity.

Texas seems to be the ideal place for detention centers. In 2005 a new facility opened in Pearsall, with space for 1,200. The center in Los Fresnos was recently expanded from 800 to 1,200 beds. Hutto, Texas is home to a new family detention center where DHS can hold people who have been apprehended with their children. If you易ve never heard of these places, there易s a reason.

Immigration detention is big business. Many detention centers are operated by for-profit companies. The federal government pays the companies, which in turn often pay the counties. Since Texas has plenty of poor rural counties with cheap real estate, it's not surprising that thousands of immigrants are detained here. But Texas isn't alone. There are immigrant detention facilities nationwide, including county jails, holding thousands.

While the federal government spends millions to jail immigrants, the other costs are far more troublesome. Families that lose the main breadwinner may have to seek public assistance such as food stamps or welfare. Some people lose their homes or are evicted after falling behind on mortgage or rent. Employers lose valuable workers and productivity decreases. Children of detained single parents may end up in foster care.

Then there are costs more difficult to quantify, such as the erosion of the right to due process. There's no right to a court-appointed attorney in immigration court. Increasingly, detainees are sent to south Texas from all over the U.S. -- from Miami, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- to fill up new bed space. In Texas there are only a handful of nonprofit organizations serving rural areas and they don易t have the staff or resources to represent everyone who can易t afford an attorney. Even in large cities with many pro bono and nonprofit lawyers, many people go unrepresented.

The remote location of many facilities bring emotional hardships to detainees separated from family and friends. The long distances make it logistically challenging for advocates to gather evidence needed for court -- employment, criminal, medical and school records; documents from family members; proof of community service and civic leadership to name a few.

Would you have the time and money to make a 2,000-mile trip to testify in court for your sister? Many people don易t have that luxury. What if you didn易t have a lawyer? Could you prepare an application in court in a language you don易t speak? Could you even understand the charges against you? In the frustration of being far from family and friends, without a lawyer, during the months it took to prepare your case, wouldn't you be tempted to just sign a paper and go without a fight? That易s what many people do, because the system is stacked against them.

Who are detained in these facilities? Many are Central Americans who came in search of work and freedom from increasing gang violence. There are asylum-seekers from all over the world who fled their homes after being detained, tortured and persecuted. Many came on a valid visa, overstayed and were picked up at a raid while working. Thousands of others are lawful permanent residents, many of whom have lived in the U.S. since they were children, who face deportation because of criminal offenses they committed. Each person has a story. For those who易ve just arrived, detention shatters their dream of what America stands for. For those who have lived here legally for decades, there易s disbelief that their "permanent" residence is in fact very precarious.

Advocates who represent detained immigrants, already struggling to meet the demands, are alarmed by the rise in unnecessary detentions. The detentions aim to increase the number of people deported. Under the current immigration laws, huge numbers of people have no relief from deportation. For those who are eligible for relief, their ability to seek it decreases drastically if they're detained during the process. And who are those most adversely affected? The very same people that the Statue of Liberty says we're supposed to welcome with open arms.

Tell our representatives that the immigrants易 American Dream shouldn't die in a remote lock-up far away from family and friends. If we allow these unnecessary detentions to continue, Texas-style for-profit immigration detention centers may be coming soon to a community near you.

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Albion Monitor   December 11, 2006   (

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