What Does Abolition Mean for Immigration Law and Policy?

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As new possibilities for immigration policy open up under the new Biden administration, the public conversation is at an inflection point. The record deportations of the Obama administration, followed by intensified oppression of immigrant communities under Trump, have led some advocates and organizers to critically examine the existing immigration enforcement infrastructure. Demands to abolish ICE and eliminate the practice of imprisoning immigrants are growing. This discourse is informed by and connected to the broader movement to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC). As Silky Shah of Detention Watch Network recently wrote, “It’s past time for the immigrant justice movement to embrace the broader calls for prison abolition and defunding the police.” 

Pastor cuts ankle monitor from man seeking sanctuary.
Pastor at New Jersey church cuts an electronic shackle from a man seeking sanctuary. Credit: Bob Karp/ KVUE-ABC.

Advocates for immigrant justice should indeed join the broader decarceration movement. However, abolition has its own distinct place in immigration law and policy. Abolition of ICE–not just the agency, but its carceral function–is an important piece of this puzzle. But abolition in the immigration context can also mean the elimination of not just detention, but of deportation and all immigration restrictions. In other words, open borders. Upon closer examination, it should become clear that abolition of detention and elimination of all immigration restrictions are interdependent. One cannot exist without the other. 

Should the System Be Fixed or is it Working as Intended?

In recent months, there have been many calls on the left to “fix the broken immigration system” or “build a better, more humane, immigration system.” This framing acknowledges that something is wrong with the laws and policies that are harming people and communities so egregiously. But the system is arguably working as Congress intended when it passed the immigration laws currently in place. Those laws were intended to be punitive, to seal the border, and to eliminate unauthorized immigration. The harm the laws are causing is a direct consequence of how and why they were written.

A shift in terminology may provide insight into the question of whether the immigration system is broken or working as intended. If we used the term “deportation system” instead of “immigration system,” we might start to see the problem differently. The purpose and function of the immigration laws is to restrict or exclude non-U.S. citizens from the territory, society, and electorate of the U.S. These restrictions are backed by the threat of incarceration and expulsion. This system is part of the broader carceral state, a fact better reflected by the term “deportation system.” 

Why then would we want to fix a deportation system or build a better one? What would a “better” deportation system even look like? The language we use shapes how we think about the laws and policies that are causing damage to people and communities. If our objective is to stop the government from harming immigrant communities, perhaps a better question to ask is why do we need a deportation system at all?

How #AbolishICE Is Connected to Ending Immigrant Detention.

In early 2018, as the scope of the damage the Trump administration was doing to immigrant communities was becoming clear, the call to abolish ICE began to grow on the left. Some proponents of the demand to abolish ICE note that ICE has only existed since 2003, the implication being that it would be easy to simply revert to the previous system. However, the prior immigration system was also inherently oppressive and unjust. The deportation system has existed for many years, and the precursors to ICE (most recently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)) did terrible things well before 2003, including: 

The U.S. government has killed, imprisoned, or exiled people excluded from citizenship for centuries. It is not clear that government oppression of immigrants is worse today than in the past. Replacing ICE with another deportation enforcement agency would not fundamentally change the deportation system. This is why we must abolish not just the form of ICE, but its function. We must abolish the deportation system. 

In addition, there are deep connections between the deportation system, U.S. imperialism, and the racialized carceral state, itself the legacy of chattel slavery. A comprehensive analysis of these connections is beyond the scope of this post, but Jenna Lloyd’s “Prison Abolitionist Perspectives on No Borders” is one reference point to understand the application of carceral abolitionist principles to the deportation system (in Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, Reece Jones, ed., 2019).

In recent months, calls to abolish immigrant detention have spread. This is an encouraging sign of progress towards justice for immigrants. However, calls to end “mass immigration detention” or use detention only as a last resort are not abolitionist demands. Abolishing immigration detention means categorically abolishing all forms of immigration detention, including detention for any length of time. We have seen ICE and CBP routinely ignore court-ordered time limits on periods of detention. For instance, ICE has detained children in family detention for nearly two years, far longer than the 20 days permitted under a federal court’s application of the Flores Settlement Agreement governing detention of immigrant children. DHS cannot be trusted to limit detention to a “reasonable” time period even when legally obligated to do so. We have seen that courts and politicians do not hold DHS accountable to the law, for instance when ICE ignored a federal judge’s order in the Flores case to release children from family detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The judge took no meaningful action to hold ICE accountable for violating her order. DHS has pushed past limits on length of detention set by courts or Congress and ignored court orders to release babies from prison. And who would decide what is a “reasonable” period of time to be detained in DHS custody? Consider how long would be too long for you or your family members to be locked in a cell, uncertain of what might come next. 

In addition, the racist origins and mandate of ICE mean that the agency takes little care to accurately ascertain the nationality or citizenship of the people it targets. ICE routinely detains and deports U.S. citizens, perhaps thousands each year. ICE routinely deports people to countries they are not a citizen of, including stateless people. More importantly, as the PIC abolition movement has explained, the act of detention itself is unjust and harmful regardless of the length or purpose of detention. The demand to end immigrant detention must be absolute or it is no demand at all.

The demands to abolish ICE and to end immigrant detention are intrinsically connected. ICE is the principal federal agency that arrests, detains, and deports immigrants in the interior of the U.S. A law enforcement arrest definitionally involves a period of detention, however brief. Detention in turn requires an initial arrest. If immigrant detention were abolished, ICE would be converted into a type of glorified parking authority, able to hand out citations but unable to enforce them. The absurdity of such a scenario should lead to elimination of the agency. Conversely, abolishing ICE without replacing it with a functionally equivalent agency would have the effect of ending immigrant detention. 

A World Without Immigrant Detention is a World Without Borders

Abolishing detention would effectively abolish deportation as well. Without the ability to arrest or detain, government agents would be unable to forcibly exclude or expel people from the U.S. 

Without detention, passengers arriving at airports could not be prevented from leaving the airport before they could be forced to board a flight to leave the U.S. DHS officers could not detain arriving passengers in “secondary inspection” (one of the many euphemisms employed by the immigration agencies) before deporting them. Note that eliminating immigration detention would not prevent the government from conducting security or health screenings applicable to all passengers, it would simply remove the additional screening based on a person’s citizenship or immigration status that is currently in place. The land borders would be open, as they had been almost universally around the world until about 100 years ago. Whatever measures are actually needed to protect the health and safety of the public–for instance, restrictions on movement necessitated by COVID-19–could be neutrally applied regardless of citizenship. 

In the absence of a mechanism for physically excluding or expelling people, the government would need to rely on other methods to deter people from entering or remaining in the U.S. without official authorization. Those methods would–and should–be toothless. That is because unauthorized migration does not harm others and because impeding a person’s ability to migrate is a violation of their basic human rights. Any restrictions on migration, whether enforceable by ICE or not, should be eliminated. Whichever came first–removing all restrictions on migration or eliminating immigrant detention–removing DHS’s ability to enforce the unjust immigration laws would be a critical step forward.

Since the government does not formally endorse or concede a racial basis for immigration restrictions (although elected officials such as former President Trump do), DHS relies heavily on putative public safety and national security rationales to justify the deportation system. Those rationales must be critically analyzed through the lenses of decolonization and demilitarization. Who is made less safe by the U.S. national security apparatus? Whose health and well-being is diminished by the deportation system? The answers to these questions will help inform the conversation about what true safety and security means for a free people. And as Silky Shah and others have noted, advocates for liberation must work together, not against each other. The movements for decolonization, demilitarization, PIC abolition, and open borders will all succeed or fail together; they cannot be separated. 

The Road to Migrant Liberation

By examining the system of detention and deportation of immigrants, we see that abolition in the immigration context can refer not simply to PIC abolition or ending immigrant detention, but to the abolition of all immigration restrictions. A thorough discussion of what a society without immigration restrictions might look like is beyond the scope of this post. But looking at how U.S. citizens move and integrate inside the country may be a helpful starting point. A person moving from New York to Pennsylvania, for instance, is obligated to apply for a driver’s license within a certain time period if they wish to drive in Pennsylvania. They must register to vote if they wish to vote in Pennsylvania elections. The Pennsylvania government does not prohibit these internal migrants from applying to drive or vote, and neither does the government require them to drive or vote. These systems may overlap with the carceral state at the margins, but they are not inherently punitive. The nominal obligations associated with changing domicile seem reasonable to most people, and most people comply with the requirements. These existing systems could be applied to non-U.S. citizens in lieu of a coercive deportation system. Then the twin scourges of detention and deportation would disappear organically.

Some people may support abolition of immigrant detention because they believe imprisonment is inherently unjust. Others may endorse open borders because they believe the government should not prevent the free movement of people. Either road leads to the same destination: migrant liberation. 

David Bennion is the Executive Director of Free Migration Project.


¿Qué significa la abolición para las leyes y políticas de inmigración?

A medida que se abren nuevas posibilidades para la política de inmigración bajo la nueva administración de Biden, la conversación pública se encuentra en un punto de inflexión. Las deportaciones récord de la administración Obama, seguidas de la opresión intensificada de las comunidades de inmigrantes bajo Trump, han llevado a algunos defensores y organizadores a examinar críticamente la infraestructura de control de inmigración existente. Las demandas para abolir el Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de EE. UU. (ICE, por sus siglas en inglés) y eliminar la práctica de encarcelar a inmigrantes están aumentando. Este discurso está informado y conectado con el movimiento más amplio para abolir el complejo industrial penitenciario (CIP). Como escribió recientemente Silky Shah de Detention Watch Network : “Ya es hora de que el movimiento por la justicia de inmigrantes adopte los llamados más amplios para la abolición de las prisiones y la desfinanciación de la policía”.

Los defensores de la justicia para inmigrantes deberían unirse al movimiento más amplio de descarceración. Sin embargo, la abolición tiene su propio lugar distintivo en las leyes y políticas de inmigración. La abolición de ICE, no solo la agencia, sino su función carcelaria, es una pieza importante de este rompecabezas. La abolición en el sistema de inmigración también puede significar la eliminación, no solo de la detención, sino también de la deportación y todas las restricciones de inmigración. En otras palabras, fronteras abiertas. Tras examinarse más detenidamente, debería quedar claro que la abolición de la detención y la eliminación de todas las restricciones a la inmigración son interdependientes. Uno no puede existir sin el otro.

¿Debe arreglarse el sistema o funciona según fue previsto?

En los últimos meses, ha habido muchos llamados de la izquierda para “arreglar el sistema de inmigración roto” o “construir un sistema de inmigración mejor y más humano”. Este encuadre reconoce que algo anda mal con las leyes y políticas que están dañando a las personas y comunidades de manera tan atroz. Pero se podría decir que el sistema está funcionando como pretendía el Congreso cuando aprobó las leyes de inmigración actualmente vigentes. Esas leyes tenían la intención de ser punitivas, sellar la frontera y eliminar la inmigración no autorizada. El daño que están causando las leyes es una consecuencia directa de cómo y por qué fueron redactadas.

Un cambio en la terminología puede proporcionar información sobre la cuestión de si el sistema de inmigración está roto o funciona como se esperaba. Si usamos el término “sistema de deportación” en lugar de “sistema de inmigración”, podríamos comenzar a ver el problema de manera diferente. El propósito y la función de las leyes de inmigración es restringir o excluir a los ciudadanos no estadounidenses del territorio, la sociedad y el electorado de los Estados Unidos. Estas restricciones están respaldadas por la amenaza de encarcelamiento y expulsión. Este sistema es parte del estado carcelario más amplio, un hecho que se refleja mejor en el término “sistema de deportación”.

¿Por qué entonces querríamos arreglar un sistema de deportación o construir uno mejor? ¿Cómo se puede “mejorar” un sistema de deportación? El lenguaje que usamos da forma a la manera en que pensamos sobre las leyes y políticas que están causando daños a las personas y las comunidades. Si nuestro objetivo es evitar que el gobierno dañe a las comunidades de inmigrantes, quizás una mejor pregunta es ¿por qué necesitamos un sistema de deportación?

Cómo #AbolirICE (#AbolishICE) está conectado a poner fin a la detención de inmigrantes

A principios de 2018, a medida que se hacía evidente el alcance del daño que la administración Trump estaba haciendo a las comunidades de inmigrantes, el llamado a abolir ICE comenzó a crecer en la izquierda. Algunos defensores de la demanda para abolir ICE señalan que ICE solo ha existido desde el 2003, lo que implica que sería fácil simplemente volver al sistema anterior. Sin embargo, el sistema de inmigración anterior también era intrínsecamente opresivo e injusto. El sistema de deportación ha existido durante muchos años, y los precursores de ICE (más recientemente, el Servicio de Inmigración y Naturalización (INS, por sus siglas en inglés)) hicieron cosas terribles mucho antes del 2003, incluyendo:

El gobierno de Estados Unidos ha matado, encarcelado y/o exiliado a personas excluidas de la ciudadanía durante siglos. No está claro que la opresión de los inmigrantes por parte del gobierno sea peor hoy que en el pasado. Reemplazar a ICE con otra agencia de ejecución de deportaciones no cambiaría fundamentalmente el sistema de deportación. Es por eso que debemos abolir no sólo la forma de ICE, sino su función. Debemos abolir el sistema de deportación.

Además, existen profundas conexiones entre el sistema de deportación, el imperialismo estadounidense y el estado carcelario racializado, en sí mismo legado de la esclavitud. Un análisis exhaustivo de estas conexiones está más allá del alcance de este artículo, pero las “Perspectivas abolicionistas de las cárceles sin fronteras” de Jenna Lloyd es un punto de referencia para comprender la aplicación de los principios abolicionistas carcelarios al sistema de deportación (en Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, Reece Jones, ed., 2019).

En los últimos meses, se han extendido los llamados a abolir la detención de inmigrantes. Esta es una señal alentadora de progreso hacia la justicia para los inmigrantes. Sin embargo, los llamados a poner fin a la “detención migratoria masiva” o utilizar la detención sólo como último recurso no son demandas abolicionistas. Abolir la detención de inmigrantes significa abolir categóricamente todas las formas de detención de inmigrantes, incluida la detención por cualquier período de tiempo. Hemos visto que ICE y Aduanas y Protección de Fronteras de EE.UU (CBP, por sus siglas en inglés) ignoran rutinariamente los límites de tiempo ordenados por las cortes en los períodos de detención. Por ejemplo, ICE ha detenido a niños en detención familiar durante casi dos años, mucho más de los 20 días permitidos por la aplicación de un tribunal federal del Acuerdo de Resolución de Flores que rige la detención de niños inmigrantes. No se puede confiar en que el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional (DHS, por sus siglas en inglés) limite la detención a un período de tiempo “razonable”, incluso cuando esté legalmente obligado a hacerlo. Hemos visto que los tribunales y los políticos no responsabilizan al DHS ante la ley, por ejemplo, cuando ICE ignoró la orden de un jueza federal en el caso Flores de liberar a los niños de la detención familiar durante la pandemia de COVID-19. La jueza no tomó ninguna medida significativa para responsabilizar a ICE por violar su orden. El DHS ha superado los límites de duración de la detención establecidos por los tribunales o el Congreso e ignoró las órdenes judiciales de liberar a bebés de la prisión. ¿Quién decidiría cuál es un período de tiempo “razonable” para permanecer bajo la custodia del DHS? Considere cuánto tiempo sería demasiado tiempo para que usted o los miembros de su familia estuvieran encerrados en una celda, sin estar seguros de lo que vendría después.

Además, los orígenes racistas y el mandato de ICE significan que la agencia se preocupa muy poco por determinar con precisión la nacionalidad o ciudadanía de las personas a las que se dirige. ICE detiene y deporta de forma rutinaria a ciudadanos estadounidenses, quizás miles cada año. ICE deporta habitualmente a personas a países de los que no son ciudadanos, incluidos los apátridas. Más importante aún, como ha explicado el movimiento de abolición del CIP, el acto de detención en sí mismo es injusto y dañino independientemente de la duración o el propósito de la detención. La demanda para poner fin a la detención de inmigrantes debe ser absoluta o no es una demanda en absoluto.

Las demandas para abolir a ICE y poner fin a la detención de inmigrantes están intrínsecamente conectadas. ICE es la principal agencia federal que arresta, detiene y deporta a inmigrantes en el interior de los Estados Unidos. Un arresto policial implica, por definición, un período de detención, por breve que sea. La detención, a su vez, requiere un arresto inicial. Si se aboliera la detención de inmigrantes, ICE se convertiría en un tipo de autoridad de estacionamiento glorificada, capaz de entregar citaciones pero incapaz de hacerlas cumplir. El absurdo de tal escenario debería conducir a la eliminación de la agencia. A la inversa, abolir a ICE sin reemplazarlo con una agencia funcionalmente equivalente tendría el efecto de poner fin a la detención de inmigrantes.

Un mundo sin detención de inmigrantes es un mundo sin fronteras

La abolición de la detención también aboliría efectivamente la deportación. Sin la capacidad de arrestar o detener, los agentes del gobierno no podrían excluir o expulsar por la fuerza a personas de los EE. UU. 

Sin detención, los pasajeros que llegan en los aeropuertos no pueden ser impedidos de salir del aeropuerto antes de que pudieran ser obligados a abordar un vuelo para abandonar Estados Unidos. DHS no pudo detener a los pasajeros que llegan durante una “inspección secundaria” (uno de los muchos eufemismos empleados por la inmigración agencias) antes de deportarles. Tenga en cuenta que la eliminación de la detención de inmigrantes no evitaría que el gobierno lleve a cabo controles de seguridad o salud aplicables a todos los pasajeros (independientemente de la ciudadanía), simplemente eliminaría el control adicional en función de la ciudadanía o el estado migratorio de una persona que se encuentra actualmente en vigor. Las fronteras terrestres estarían abiertas, como lo habían estado casi universalmente en todo el mundo hasta hace unos 100 años. Cualesquiera medidas que sean realmente necesarias para proteger la salud y la seguridad del público, por ejemplo, las restricciones de movimiento necesarias por COVID-19, podrían aplicarse de manera neutral independientemente de la ciudadanía.

En ausencia de un mecanismo para excluir o expulsar físicamente a las personas, el gobierno tendría que depender de otros métodos para disuadir a las personas de entrar o permanecer en los EE. UU. sin autorización oficial. Esos métodos serían, y deberían, ser desdentados. Es decir, porque la migración no-autorizada no daña a otros y porque impedir la capacidad de una persona para migrar es una violación de sus derechos humanos básicos. Cualquier restricción a la migración, ya sea que ICE pueda hacerla cumplir o no, debe eliminarse. Lo que ocurra primero, eliminar todas las restricciones a la migración o eliminar la detención de inmigrantes, eliminar la capacidad del DHS para hacer cumplir las leyes de inmigración injustas sería un paso fundamental hacia adelante.

Dado que el gobierno no respalda ni concede formalmente una base racial para las restricciones de inmigración (aunque los funcionarios electos como el ex presidente Trump sí lo hacen), el DHS se basa en gran medida en los supuestos fundamentos de seguridad pública y seguridad nacional para justificar el sistema de deportación. Esos fundamentos deben analizarse críticamente a través de los lentes de la descolonización y la desmilitarización. ¿Quién está menos seguro con el aparato de seguridad nacional de Estados Unidos? ¿La salud y el bienestar de quienes se ven afectados por el sistema de deportación? Las respuestas a estas preguntas ayudarán a informar la conversación sobre lo que significa la verdadera seguridad para un pueblo libre. Y como han señalado Silky Shah y otros, los defensores de la liberación deben trabajar juntos, no unos contra otros. Los movimientos de descolonización, desmilitarización, abolición del CIP y fronteras abiertas triunfarán o fracasarán juntos; no se pueden separar.

El camino hacia la liberación de los migrantes

Al examinar el sistema de detención y deportación de inmigrantes, vemos que la abolición en el contexto de la inmigración puede referirse no simplemente a la abolición del CIP o al final de la detención de inmigrantes, sino a la abolición de todas las restricciones de inmigración. Una discusión exhaustiva de cómo se vería una sociedad sin restricciones de inmigración está más allá del alcance de esta publicación. Pero observar cómo los ciudadanos estadounidenses se mueven e integran dentro del país puede ser un punto de partida útil. Una persona que se muda de Nueva York a Pensilvania, por ejemplo, está obligada a solicitar una licencia de conducir dentro de un período de tiempo determinado si desea conducir en Pensilvania. Deben registrarse para votar si desean votar en las elecciones de Pensilvania. El gobierno de Pensilvania no prohíbe que estos inmigrantes internos soliciten conducir o votar, y tampoco les exige que conduzcan o voten. Estos sistemas pueden tener terreno común con el estado carcelario en sus márgenes, pero no son inherentemente punitivos. Las obligaciones nominales asociadas con el cambio de domicilio parecen razonables para la mayoría de las personas, y la mayoría cumple con los requisitos. Estos sistemas existentes podrían aplicarse a ciudadanos no estadounidenses en lugar de un sistema de deportación coercitiva. Entonces los flagelos gemelos de la detención y la deportación desaparecerían orgánicamente.

Algunas personas pueden apoyar la abolición de la detención de inmigrantes porque creen que el encarcelamiento es intrínsecamente injusto. Otros pueden respaldar las fronteras abiertas porque creen que el gobierno no debería impedir la libre circulación de personas. Cualquiera de los caminos conduce al mismo destino: la liberación de migrantes.

David Bennion es el director ejecutivo de Free Migration Project.

Governor Wolf, Free the Berks Families

Familias Separadas Harrisburg Capitol 11-3-18
Michelle Angela Ortiz, “Familias Separadas,” 2018.

On Friday, June 26, Judge Dolly Gee ruled in federal court in California that ICE has until July 17 to release children detained at three family immigration prisons nationwide, since they are not adequately protected from infection with COVID-19. After learning that COVID-19 had already entered the two family prisons in Texas, Judge Gee wrote that the family prisons “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures.” While multiple news outlets covered Judge Gee’s order as though immigrant families would automatically be released, ICE has disregarded and disobeyed Judge Gee’s past orders. On Wednesday, July 1, ICE argued in a separate case that the agency should not be required to release the detained families as Judge Gee had ordered. 

In April, families detained at the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) sued the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) for failing to issue an Emergency Removal Order to protect them from infection during the pandemic. Issuance of the Emergency Removal Order is mandatory when there is an “immediate and serious danger to the life or health” of the children. 

From May 26-29, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania heard testimony from parents detained at BCRC, a medical expert, lawyers representing detained families, the director of BCRC, and the PA DHS inspector charged with monitoring conditions at BCRC. PA DHS argued that it is not required to issue an Emergency Removal Order because the agency alleges that the families are safe from infection and would receive adequate medical care if infected. Extensive evidence was submitted to the court that the families are not–and cannot be–safe from infection with COVID-19 while detained at the family prison, and that BCRC has a long history of serious medical neglect of detained children. 

Soon after Judge Gee issued her order last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released a public statement about the order. In the statement, Governor Wolf appeared to support the prompt release of the families detained at BCRC. However, he completely ignored the ongoing lawsuit against his own administration for failing to protect the detained children during the pandemic. Worse, several of his assertions contradicted court filings or sworn testimony from PA DHS itself. 

What follows is Governor Wolf’s public statement, line by line (in italics), compared with what the state actually argued in Commonwealth Court:  

Gov. Wolf: The Wolf Administration applauds the order of a federal judge announced late Friday to release children held with their parents at the Berks County Residential Center in Berks County and two other federal immigration detention facilities operated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Governor Wolf has been clear and consistent in opposing the facility’s use for family detention.

What PA DHS argued: While Governor Wolf claims to oppose family detention at BCRC, he refuses to use the authority he has to direct PA DHS to enforce state child protection laws and order the children to be released. Instead, PA DHS argued that the families have “no clear right to an ERO as BCRC has implemented mitigation strategies and no COVID-19 outbreak has occurred.” DHS Brief of 6/15/20 at 31. PA DHS also argued that the decision whether to release the children should be left to ICE and the federal courts, functionally leaving a void at BCRC where state child care law does not apply. PA DHS argued, “Because there is another adequate and more appropriate remedy, this Court should deny” the relief that the detained families are requesting. DHS Brief at 31.

Gov. Wolf: Families, particularly those with children, seeking refuge and opportunity in the United States should not face indefinite detainment in guarded facilities while they wait for a day in court and a fair hearing of their immigration case.

What PA DHS argued: While Governor Wolf acknowledges the plain truth that families are detained at Berks against their will, PA DHS argued in Commonwealth Court that BCRC is not a detention center, only a “non-secure residential program.” (“BCRC provides a non-secure residential program for families whose immigration proceedings remain pending.” DHS Brief at 2.) Again, PA DHS is fighting in court to avoid complying with the agency’s legal duty to protect the children, meaning that the Wolf administration itself shares responsibility for keeping those children in “indefinite detainment in guarded facilities.”  

Gov. Wolf: This is true all of the time, but it is especially important during a global pandemic when congregate settings have proven particularly vulnerable to the dangerous and extremely contagious COVID-19 virus.

What PA DHS argued: Despite Governor Wolf’s purported concern about COVID-19 at BCRC, PA DHS argued in its court filings that children detained at BCRC are safe from infection from COVID-19 because “BCRC has taken appropriate steps to address COVID-19.” DHS Brief at 21. To the contrary, evidence presented in Commonwealth Court showed that only two detained people and one staff member had been tested for COVID-19 at the time of the hearing; that PA DHS’s inspector did not review children’s post-intake medical records and was not aware that multiple children at BCRC had suffered from fevers since the pandemic began; that social distancing could not reliably practiced by the very young children detained at the prison and in fact was not practiced; that young children were not provided with appropriately-sized masks and could not consistently wear masks due to their young age; that BCRC staff and other personnel came and went from the prison on a daily basis, potentially bringing COVID-19 into the prison; and that detained parents were tasked with cleaning shared areas at BCRC for one dollar per day, potentially exposing them to COVID-19. 

The only medical expert to testify in the proceedings, pediatrician Dr. Alan Shapiro, stated under oath that “unless you have a closed system with no entry or exit … it’s impossible to prevent the infection from coming into a facility.” He continued, “that’s the only way you could prevent something like this from happening … in particular something that’s as infectious as COVID.” This has proven true after COVID-19 made its way into both of the family prisons in Texas. 

PA DHS, despite presenting no expert medical testimony of its own, argued that “Dr. Shapiro’s testimony, that the only way to protect the Petitioners is to release them to the community, should be given little to no weight and is undermined by the absence of a single case of COVID-19 at BCRC in the three months since the Governor issued his Proclamation of Disaster Emergency.” DHS Brief at 24.

PA DHS actually argued that detained families are safer remaining at the Berks family prison than being released into freedom with their families. (“In addition to the lack of the evidence necessary to issue an ERO, an ERO is unwarranted because it is unclear whether the Petitioners would be safer if the ERO were to issue.” DHS Brief at 26.) DHS argued that “if the residents are released to the community, they are still exposed to the threat of COVID-19, as we all are, but will be without on-site medical care, food services, and other residential services that satisfy their immediate needs.” DHS Brief at 28.

PA DHS’s assertion that people quarantined at home are less safe than people locked in a closed, congregate facility is categorically false. Detained parents have repeatedly said that they would rather take care of themselves and their children on their own, outside of a prison. BCRC provides “on-site medical care, food services, and other residential services” in the same way that a prison does, but few prisoners would give up their freedom for the promise of substandard food and inadequate medical care, especially during a pandemic. Especially when, at the time of the hearing, more than half of all ICE detainees nationwide who were tested for COVID-19 tested positive. BCRC is a prison for immigrant families, and PA DHS’s argument is false and misleading. 

Gov. Wolf: All people, regardless of their nationality or immigration status, deserve dignity, liberty and safety. In January 2016, the Wolf Administration revoked the Berks County Residential Center’s license to operate as a Child Residential Facility. Berks County, which operates the center under a contract with the federal government, appealed the revocation and the facility has been legally able to operate while its appeal is pending.

What PA DHS argued: While it is true that Berks County’s appeal of PA DHS’s revocation of its child care license is still pending, PA DHS has entered into an unlawful agreement with Berks County to allow it to remain in operation even though the 2016-17 state child care license has now expired. PA DHS did not have to allow Berks County to operate on an expired license but chose to do so anyway, so formerly-detained families separately sued PA DHS in Commonwealth Court to compel them to end that agreement. J.S.C. v. DHS, 678 M.D. 2019, (Pa. Cmwlth. 2019). PA DHS is fighting that lawsuit as well. Incredibly, PA DHS argued in that case that Berks County’s “protected property interest in its license” outweighs the rights of the detained children to be safe and free. Again, PA DHS’s actions in court speak louder than Governor Wolf’s words. 

Gov. Wolf: The Department of Human Services has continued to conduct regular and unscheduled monitoring visits while the center operates during the appeal process

What PA DHS argued: PA DHS’s inspector testified in Commonwealth Court that she had coordinated inspections in March and May ahead of time with the director of BCRC. The inspections were not unscheduled, BCRC had full knowledge of them ahead of time and could prepare accordingly.  

Gov. Wolf: The Wolf Administration suggested several alternative uses for the facility, but Berks County officials were unwilling to consider them and chose to continue the contract with ICE for the detention center. The Wolf Administration will work with federal and Berks County officials to ensure the safe release of people in custody and provide any assistance necessary. We hope that this order marks the beginning of the end of family detention in the United States.

What PA DHS argued: PA DHS argued in court filings that it should be excused from issuing an Emergency Removal Order because “[i]f this Court were to direct the Department to issue an ERO, the residents would remain in federal custody.” PA DHS argued that even if ICE were inclined to release the families to family members or other sponsors in the community, the Commonwealth Court “should not direct the Department to issue an ERO because it is unclear whether the Petitioners would be in a better place or whether discharge would be in their best interests.” The parents of the detained children have told the Commonwealth Court that they do not want their children detained in conditions they believe are unsafe during the pandemic. Would any parent want their child locked in a prison where they could be infected with COVID-19 at any time? Isn’t a parent in the best position to know what is in the best interests of their own children? The Wolf administration evidently believes otherwise. 

Family detention will end in the United States when elected officials like Governor Wolf use their authority to enforce the law and stand up to ICE. Instead, Governor Wolf’s administration has been telling courts one thing and the public another. The way forward is clear: Governor Wolf must direct PA DHS to issue an Emergency Removal Order to release the Berks families before COVID-19 enters BCRC like it has in both Texas family prisons.  

The Left Case for Open Borders

Read this important piece from John Washington in the Nation to understand not only the Left case for open borders but why open borders is the immigration policy framework most consistent with the stated principles and values of the Left. Washington argues that borders don’t just reflect divisions among societies, they create and reinforce gaps in wealth, security, political power, and cultural understanding:

The oft-cited and oft-exaggerated comparison of El Paso as one of the safest cities in America and Juárez as suffering from uncontrollable violence is not because the border wall protects El Paso from the violence or poverty of Juárez. The wage gap and security disparity are because of the border wall: transnational corporations drawing massive numbers of nearly starvation-wage workers to Juárez and exploiting a paucity of labor protections. And with US illicit-drug demand constant over the years, a hardened border makes trafficking and smuggling more lucrative for the paramilitary cartels and the corrupt state agencies they work with, entrenching their stranglehold on the population. More than marking the difference between people, therefore, borders make the difference—imaginary lines fissuring families, cultures, and ecosystems.

Borders do not enhance security or communal ideals; rather, they are exploited by demagogues to gain, maintain, and expand power:

[A]s the historian Greg Grandin writes, borders “announce the panic of power.” It’s a point that seems abundantly evident as Trump, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other authoritarian leaders try to grip power by inciting panic at the fraying edges of imaginary ideals.

Washington articulates what is often lost in discussions about immigration policy: that immigration restrictions not only limit freedom of movement but represent a pervasive and unjustifiable formal impediment to fair and equal treatment under the law. Immigrants are excluded from access to basic rights and freedoms in a structured way that defines the parameters of citizenship, mirroring the tradition of legal and social exclusion of Black Americans, from slavery to the carceral state. Immigrants can’t vote but are scapegoated by elected officials, are required to pay taxes but are excluded from social programs funded by those taxes, are precluded from working legally yet lauded for “doing the jobs Americans won’t do,” and they work in unsafe low-wage occupations but can’t access basic health care. Immigrants live in a state of perpetual contingency, at risk of being imprisoned and exiled at any time. The U.S. government is creating a kind of totalitarian state for immigrants, encouraging people to call ICE out of civic duty, deputizing anyone with prejudice and a grudge to participate in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. We’ve seen this all before, but somehow can’t draw the historical connections. For basic rights to matter in a system where millions of people are embedded in society and/or seeking refuge from economic or political repression but are never able to become citizens, rights must be disaggregated from citizenship:

To be a true freedom, the freedom to move across borders, therefore, must be accompanied by the ability to access all the rights that native-born residents enjoy: The right to pay into social programs and to ultimately benefit from them. The right to be protected by labor laws, to access minimum wages, overtime protections, and more. The right to unionize and to collectively bargain without fear of reprisal. The right to live free from fear of being hounded by police or immigration officers. The right, perhaps after a period of residency, to vote in your new home and have a say in its future. There’s no real reason for these rights to be tied to citizenship, and, as the above has hopefully shown, ample reasons for them not to be—all that remains is to work out how we get there.


Finally, Washington interrogates the flawed premises underlying most liberals’ current preferred immigration policy: a tragically unworkable “comprehensive immigration reform” that would trade a partial and burdensome amnesty for additional border restrictions and immigration enforcement. Yet even this flawed and partial solution has remained perennially out of reach, pushed off to the next election, and then the next, and the next. There is an urgent need for a proactive, rights-based immigration policy framework on the Left, but the shortcomings of the current approach remain invisible to the broad spectrum of elected officials on the left and the advocates who tell them what to think and say about immigration. Washington poses the question: 

Is it time to seriously work through what a world would be like that allowed any people to leave their country and enter a new one freely, without penalty, and without forcing them into underground economies or worse? Is it time to envision a transnational movement that advocates for equal rights for all people, regardless of birthplace? Is it time, in other words, for us to open the borders?
. . .
It’s typical when defending open borders to go straight to the counterarguments—why there wouldn’t be an overwhelming influx of migrants, why wages wouldn’t plummet, why there wouldn’t be a paralyzing run on government services, and why crime wouldn’t increase, all of which are likely true. But policies are rarely won with defense—allaying imagined fears can solidify those fears—and the affirmative argument for opening borders is the more compelling: how a borderless world would lead to more freedom, more equality, and more justice. As [Harsha] Walia writes, “All movements need an anchor in a shared positive vision, not a homogeneous or exact or perfect condition, but one that will nonetheless dismantle hierarchies, disarm concentrations of power, guide just relations, and nurture individual autonomy alongside collective responsibility.”

#AbolishICE Means Abolish Deportation

Check out this recent piece from Free Migration Project’s director, David Bennion, at Migrant Roots Media, a new digital platform to share migrants’ perspectives about root causes of migration. An excerpt:

Repackaging ICE as kinder, gentler deportation agency with a new name will not put an end to the human rights abuses that have been highlighted and exacerbated under the Trump administration. The next Democratic president would simply revert to deporting immigrants en masse, just as President Obama did. Rather, ICE should not only be abolished, but its core function of imprisoning and deporting non-citizens must also be eliminated.

The key insight that undergirds a true #AbolishICE policy is that deportation is not just cruel and economically counterproductive, but more importantly, deportation violates basic human rights. Deportation is inconsistent with basic justice and has no place in a legal system predicated on coherent moral principles.

Read the full piece at Migrant Roots Media!

Open Letter from Carmela Apolonio Hernandez

Free Migration Project is publishing an open letter from our client Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, who has lived in sanctuary in Philadelphia with her four children for the past year. 

December  2018

Dear Friends,

My family and I are still fighting for our freedom.  We invite you to renew your support of our next phase of organizing.  

For nearly a year at Church of the Advocate, we mobilized thousands of supporters in our campaign for freedom. Together we petitioned ICE, called and met with elected officials, delivered scores of support letters to ICE urging a stay of removal, testified at rallies for immigrant and labor rights and in city council, and even occupied Senator Bob Casey’s office. As a result of our bold actions, a City Council Resolution was passed, a private bill was introduced in the House of Representatives and our story for immigrant justice was widely covered in national and local media. Importantly, we forged strong bonds between immigrant and African American communities, built a powerful vehicle for immigrant justice called the Sanctuary Advocate Coalition, and a highly visible campaign led by Jazmin Delgado and Sheila Quintana.

While Senator Casey did not the take the necessary steps to stand with me, Mayor of Philadelphia Jim Kenney, City Council members Helen Gym, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Darrell Clarke have stood with me. State Representative Chris Rabb, State Senator Art Haywood, U.S. House of Representatives Dwight Evans and Bob Brady have stood with me. Philadelphia Teachers Union, The Temple Association of University Professionals, Decarcerate PA, Free Migration Project, Juntos, Media Mobilizing Project, New Sanctuary Movement, Project SAFE, Reclaim Philadelphia, Stadium Stompers, Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, Unite Here, and other social justice and labor organizations have stood with me. The faith community and Philadelphians of conscience have stood with me. We persisted without rest and we must forge ahead to broaden our movement.

In looking ahead, we made an important decision to coalesce with more faith communities and other families currently in sanctuary. My family and I are deeply grateful to the Rev. Renee MacKenzie and the Church of the Advocate who are living testimonies of radical faith and love. And while moving out from the Church of the Advocate, away from the close and caring relationships that we developed in north Philadelphia will be difficult, we are also grateful to the Germantown Mennonite Church community who have offered to carry on the baton with sanctuary and support for my family.

Taking sanctuary at the Germantown Mennonite Church is a reaffirmation of my resolve to fight for our freedom. It is also a reaffirmation to fight alongside other immigrants and black and brown people, who are separated from family and incarcerated in this country through a system that profits from mass incarceration.  

Today ICE is detaining record numbers of immigrant children and their families. The Philadelphia ICE Office is the most aggressive in the country. We must continue to forge alliances and be in the struggle.

Please join me in the growing movement for justice.

Yours in Struggle,

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez

Please Support Free Migration Project’s Work this Giving Tuesday

In 2018, Free Migration Project continued to fight for the rights of immigrant communities. Here is what we have been working on this year:

  • We are providing legal representation to three families living in sanctuary in Philadelphia churches, supporting their fight to live freely and safe from harm in the U.S. We also support sanctuary campaigns in four other states through the Colectivo Sanctuario–the Sanctuary Collective.
  • In October, Free Migration Project co-organized the first Open Borders Conference in Arlington, Virginia, to foster dialogue about open migration policies based on a framework of human rights.
  • Free Migration Project is a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition working to end family detention in Pennsylvania. Free Migration Project provides legal, strategic, and organizational support to the effort to close the Berks family detention center outside of Reading, Pennsylvania.
  • Free Migration Project currently provides direct legal representation to approximately 80 individuals or families in various stages of their immigration cases.
  • We presented four continuing legal education seminars in Texas and Pennsylvania, training attorneys and community organizers how to collaborate on community-supported deportation defense campaigns.
  • In September, Free Migration Project collaborated with La Fabrica Theater Company to support its production of Gustavo Ott’s play “Passport,” a powerful, universal indictment of government abuses at the border.
  • We continue to work with the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights to promote the rights of immigrant restaurant workers.

Free Migration Project depends on your generous support to continue our work. This Giving Tuesday, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to enable us to continue fighting for human rights.

Please donate here.

You make this work possible!

Thank you,

Dave Bennion
Executive Director, Free Migration Project

Free Migration Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Free Migration Project works at the intersection of law and community organizing to promote the recognition of freedom of movement as a basic human right.

2018 Open Borders Conference – 10/20/18

Join Free Migration Project this fall at the inaugural Open Borders Conference in the D.C. area.

Where: George Mason University Law School, Arlington campus, Virginia
When: Saturday, October 20, 2018, 12-6 p.m.
What: Keynote speakers Bryan Caplan and Lizbeth Mateo will be joined by activists, scholars, students, and organizers in a day-long dialogue on open borders.

Register Here – We are nearly at capacity!

Updates (10/18/18): 

The Conference program is now available.

Directions to GMU Law School (Arlington Campus).

Parking information for those who are driving.

Panelists will include:
Shikha Dalmia, Reason Foundation
Rev. Kaji Dousa, Park Avenue Christian Church of Manhattan
Sara Gozalo, New Sanctuary Coalition
Jamila Hammami, Social worker & organizer
Adriane Lopez, La ColectiVA
Ilya Somin, GMU Law
Balmore, Caravana Migrante 2018

Around the world, more people than ever before are being forced from their homelands by conflict or poverty. But when they seek safety and opportunity elsewhere, they are met with walls, armed guards, and detention centers. Anti-immigrant policies are being enacted throughout the Global North. In this environment, open borders may seem to be an impossible aspiration.


Yet a simultaneous movement towards openness and liberty is growing, with activists fighting to #AbolishICE, grounding deportation flights, and using their bodies to obstruct the machinery of deportation. Faced with the overtly xenophobic policies gaining traction in many countries, more people are coming to question the utility and morality of the current closed-borders migration regime.

The one-day 2018 Open Borders Conference will be a space for activists, scholars, organizers, service providers, students, and members of the community to come together to learn what open borders might look like; why open borders would lead to dramatic increases in public safety, prosperity, and equality; and what it would mean to #AbolishICE.

Register here! (A $10 donation is requested to help cover lunch costs.)

Co-organizing this event with Free Migration Project is Fabio Rojas, Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.

Free Migration Project advocates for recognition of migration as a basic human right, and we support the growing movement to abolish immigration enforcement and open the borders.

Why We Should Abolish ICE Counsel

Free Migration Project’s executive director David Bennion and board member Steven Sacco published this piece a few months ago explaining why the ICE prosecutor’s office should be abolished along with ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations. If immigrants don’t get attorneys, neither should the government.

Since Donald Trump began implementing his campaign promise to make the immigration system more hostile and restrictive, immigration enforcement has been under new scrutiny. Recent calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for enforcing immigration laws in the United States, have tended to focus on the immigration police who carry out deportations, a function primarily housed in the branch of ICE known as Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). ICE ERO’s ramped-up program of raids and detentions has been a highly-visible element of President Trump’s effort to solidify political support among revanchist white voters opposed to a multiracial future. However, getting rid of ICE’s immigration police is not enough. ICE also encompasses the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA), which includes the ICE attorneys responsible for prosecuting people in immigration court. As practicing immigration attorneys, we believe that calls to abolish ICE should extend to ICE counsel, since ICE attorneys play an integral role in the deportation process by securing the deportation orders that ICE deportation officers later carry out.

We believe that the immigration legal system is unjust in both purpose and process. Congress designed the immigration system to prevent people of color from entering and integrating into the United States, and the courts have too often interpreted the law to further this basic goal. Due process protections for people in deportation proceedings have been intentionally limited to better implement that illegitimate purpose. Sean McElwee has aptly described the ICE immigration police as “an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.” Our immigrant clients experience the full force of that unaccountable and illegitimate legal system through long-term imprisonment, family separation, and the constant anxiety that the threat of exile produces. Our work has led us to support open migration as a basic human right. But we hope that even those who don’t share that view will come to support the elimination of ICE’s prosecutorial branch because it would make immigration proceedings more fair and rational.

Read the full piece at Latino Rebels.

Help Free Migration Project Fight for Human Rights

As Free Migration Project nears the end of its first full year, the challenges facing immigrant communities have never been greater. In 2017, Free Migration Project provided legal representation to immigrants fighting deportation, engaged Philadelphia City Council to support immigrant workers, continued fighting to close the Berks family prison, and challenged a pernicious interpretation of asylum law in federal appeals court. Through its work, Free Migration Project continues to push for recognition of migration as a basic human right. On this Giving Tuesday, I hope you’ll consider contributing to support our work.

Please support Free Migration Project’s work this Giving Tuesday.

In collaboration with organizers, advocates, and students at Temple Law School, Free Migration Project worked with local restaurant owners and chefs Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller to support a resolution in Philadelphia City Council recognizing the right of all Philadelphians to earn a living regardless of immigration status. The resolution passed in April.

Free Migration Project is a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which is working to close the Berks family prison outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. This fall, the coalition collaborated with artist Michelle Angela Ortiz through her project “Seguimos Caminando” to bring attention to the families currently incarcerated at the Berks prison and demand that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf honor the state’s obligation to protect all children within the state.

Free Migration Project currently provides direct legal representation to over 100 immigrant clients in deportation defense, citizenship, humanitarian, and family reunification cases. One of our clients, “Elizabeth,” is currently fighting her deportation in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. With the support of pro bono counsel and a group of advocacy organizations, Elizabeth and Free Migration Project are challenging a critical element of asylum law that has resulted in thousands of wrongful deportations over the past several years. Free Migration Project is also providing legal support to Edith, who remains in sanctuary in Ohio while she fights to stay with her family in the U.S.

Throughout 2017, Free Migration Project has also organized events to inform the public about certain basic human rights that all people possess regardless of citizenship or immigration status: the right to migrate, the right to remain, and the right to full economic, political, and social inclusion.

Free Migration Project depends on your support to continue our work. This Giving Tuesday, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to enable us to continue fighting for human rights.

Thank you!

Dave Bennion
Executive Director

“Opening the Borders” Campus Seminar Nov. 5

Free Migration Project is co-sponsoring a seminar this Saturday, November 5, titled “Opening the Borders: Free Movement, Free People.” The daylong event will be held at the Rotunda near the campus of University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Speakers include Peter Jaworski, Alex Nowrasteh, Jacqueline Stevens, and Niloufar Khonsari. The event is sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, with the collaboration of Free Migration Project and Penn Effective Altruists.

From the IHS event site:

This seminar will cover one of the most contentious issues of this election year: immigration. From classical liberal to progressive perspectives, this nonpartisan event will bring scholars and students together to explore the idea of open borders, offering new insights and inspiration for tackling this important issue.

Tackle provocative questions like:

  • Is there a right to immigrate?
  • What can we do to address problems related to immigration?
  • What’s the historical relationship between states, nations, citizenship, and immigration?

Register now to join top professors and public intellectuals as they present economic, historical, philosophical, and legal cases for the freedom of mobility.

There should be some interesting conversations, and an opportunity for people of different ideological leanings to discuss a topic of common interest: open borders. I’ll post an update here after the seminar.

–Dave Bennion