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(David Neiwert blogs at Orcinus

Last week, Pachacutec raised a few eyebrows by referring to the privately operated "detention centers" where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been incarcerating thousands of illegal immigrants, including their citizen children, as "concentration camps." Some of his commenters particularly objected, like my elderly inquisitor, to using a term that they, at least, associated primarily with Nazis and the Holocaust.

But as Pach noted in follow-up (with an assist from Lambert at Correntewire), "concentration camp" is a perfectly applicable term here, for largely the same reasons I gave at the talk. Considering the information that is starting to come to light from at least the largest of these centers, there are reasons to believe that conditions at these privately run "detention centers" are even worse than those at the Japanese American camps.

And Digby's keen eye, as always, observes that there's a disturbing trend emerging here — namely, that thousands of people, including citizens, are being spirited away to these centers, and so far life within them has a real totalitarian quality to it. (Meanwhile, Latina Lista has been leading the way in reporting on this.)

The chief reports involve the largest of the family detention centers: the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. A piece in the Austin Statesman reported on concerns raised by local activists:

On Thursday, members of Texans United for Families, a coalition of community, civil rights and immigrant rights groups, sought to highlight that difference. Starting with a press conference at the state Capitol, then embarking on a 35-mile walk to the Taylor jail, they charged that detaining families and children under what they described as poor conditions is immoral and violates human rights.

"Housing families in for-profit prisons not only calls to question our moral values and our respect for human rights, but it is also a waste of taxpayer money," said Luissana Santibanez, a 25-year-old University of Texas student and an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, which works to stop the expansion of the private prison industry.

The Taylor jail began holding immigrant families this summer under a contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Williamson County receives $1 per day for each inmate held there. A spokesman for the company referred questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's San Antonio office.

… Organizers of Thursday's press conference and walk said the Taylor jail houses about 400 people, including about 200 children who are held with their parents. They said children receive one hour of education — English instruction — and one hour of recreation per day, usually indoors.

It should be noted that, at the Japanese American relocation centers, the War Relocation Authority provided full schooling facilities for children in the camps. Recreation was also readily available, usually in the form of baseball, which in the summertime was played almost endlessly.

Frances Valdez, an attorney with the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law who has visited clients at the facility, said detainees have reported receiving substandard medical care and becoming ill from food served at the jail.

"A lot of children are losing weight. People suffer from severe headaches," Valdez said. "I think there's a lot of psychological issues going on. Most of these people are asylum seekers, so they've already suffered severe trauma in their country." She said immigrants are not given psychological treatment.

Valdez said children wear jail uniforms when they are big enough to fit in them, and all wear name tags. "Even a baby client had a name tag," she said. For instruction, children are divided into groups, 12 and under and 13 and above.

In the DailyKos diary by edgery on this matter, a commenter provided the text of an e-mail from flamenco guitarist Teye, who has become involved in raising the appropriate concern over these facilities, which he describes thus:

I have been to the Hutto Residential Center in Taylor Texas and can testify that it does not look like their publicity picture. The publicity picture looks almost nice: the lobby of an East European hotel maybe? The reality looks like an updated version of a concentration camp, replete with razor wire, double fence with gravel covered death zone between them. It looks like a place where you would stick grave criminals, not children.

Teye also passed along a letter from Dallas attorney John Wheat Gibson, who is representing a number of clients inside the walls at the Hutto "residential center", writing to the Austin reporter who covered the Hutto story:

Dear Mr. Castillo:

Whoever told you the people imprisoned in Taylor, Texas entered the country illegally lied to you. I have seven clients now imprisoned since November 3 at the T. Don Hutto prison, and every one of them entered the U.S. legally with a visa issued by the United States government.

Furthermore, there is no reason for the imprisonment of these children except as victims of a Michael Chertoff publicity stunt. In midnight raids on November 3 the Department of Homeland Stupidity took these children, who were enrolled in school, from their homes, with their parents and imprisoned them.

The sole purpose of the raids, political propaganda, was apparent from a DHS press release which characterized the victims as "fugitives" and "criminals." In fact, none of the families I know of were either fugitives or criminals. The two families I represent had conscientiously kept the DHS informed of their current residential addresses.

The purpose of the publicity stunt was to make the ignorant Fox-News brainwashed masses believe that 1) the Muslims among us are our enemies but 2) the DHS is protecting us, and therefore 3) we should not mind shredding the Constitution.

In fact, there was no legitimate reason for the raids at all. The two families I represent had been ordered deported, but had never received the customary notice to report for deportation. If they had, they would have worked out through their attorneys arrangements with the government for the children to finish the school year and then to depart at their own expense.

Now, this is a letter from a defense attorney and its accuracy may be a matter of interpretation. But it seems evident, not merely from this case but a number of similar anecdotes — including the arrests of a number of legal immigrants — that many of the current wave of immigration detentions are occurring under circumstances that are questionable at best. These include several instances of clear-cut racial profiling.

On top of the horrendous conditions and the inappropriate arrests, it's becoming clear that not only is the system failing to work as it should, there is a real lack of accountability, in no small part due to the fact that the government is handing off this work to private corporations, who are simply not accountable to the public. A Statesman editorial observes:

The facilities also are living testimony to a broken system for adjudicating immigration cases. There are 215 federal immigration judges serving in 53 immigration courts across the country. Last year, they handled more than 350,000 specific matters, including 270,000 individual cases.

The backlog is so strained that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, noted: "The department and the federal courts are straining under the weight of an immigration litigation system that is broken. Under the current system, criminal aliens generally receive more opportunities for judicial review of their removal orders than noncriminal aliens."

In short, illegal immigrants who commit crimes get speedier legal attention than these children, who have done nothing wrong other than follow their parents.

… Hard information on the program and the private prison is difficult to come by. The company running the prison refers questions to the immigration office, and the immigration office has had little to say about the situation.

The lack of accountability begins with the Department of Homeland Security, which appears to consider itself immune from such picayune nuisances as both public inquiry and even the courts. A Denver Post story reveals that ICE agents ignored a court order in transporting some of its detainees to Texas: 

About 75 people detained during a raid at a Greeley meatpacking plant last week are returning to Colorado after federal agents transported them against a judge's order to a Texas immigration jail, according to the union representing the plant's workers.

U.S. District Court Judge John Kane signed an order Wednesday that prohibited federal agents from sending detainees in the raid out of state.

"If a federal judge ordered me to do something, I would do it," said Dave Minshall, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. "I have no idea why ICE felt they were exempt from this order."

Also, the union filed suit charging that some of those taken in the raid were illegally detained, jailed and interrogated.

Most of the detainees returning to Colorado are immigrants from countries other than Mexico, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, Minshall said.

It's clear that Homeland Security is gearing up for more detentions, though the matter of having enough manpower to arrest illegal immigrants and transfer them to detention facilities is already starting to stress DHS officials, who are currently preparing a hiring spree to deal with the workload. The push to increase detentions has even resulted in a mini-scandal at DHS, with bureaucrats caught making an llegal funds transfer from ICE to Customs and Border Protection for the work of transporting detainees. And a new facility in Raymondville, Texas, opened this summer, designed to hold eventually some 2,000 illegal immigrants.

However, in the past year, reports Jonathan Marino at Government Executive, arrests have actually been flat, which could rule out the need for those Halliburton detention centers reportedly waiting in the wings:

Immigration enforcement officials indicated Monday they might not need to implement a contingency contract to create additional jail beds because immigration-related arrests dropped during fiscal 2006.

As of March, Customs and Border Patrol arrests stood at a five-year high. But following President Bush's call for beefed-up border security in May, apprehensions dropped. Immigration officials speculated that increased enforcement efforts may have led to a decline in attempted border crossings.

Overall, arrests were down 8 percent from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2006, from about 1.2 million to 1.1 million. The 2006 figure represents a three-year low.

Julie Myers, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters after a press conference Monday that as long as arrests continue to decline, the agency will not need to create more spaces in detention centers.

Still, Myers said space is limited and the agency needs to be "making sure we're using it as efficiently as possible." Currently, Halliburton subsidiary KBR has a contingency contract to build detention centers that — if implemented — would be worth $385 million.

It's also worth noting what Marino reports regarding the nature of that KBR contract, which supports my contention that much of the initial paranoia regarding these camps was largely unwarranted:

In an e-mail message to Government Executive, ICE Press Secretary Dean Boyd said the KBR contract "has absolutely nothing to do with immigrant detentions on the Southwest border. It is a contingency contract that has existed for years, pre-dates ICE altogether, and is only designed as a contingency for mass-migration emergencies such as a potential mass-migration from Cuba or Haiti to South Florida. There have never been any plans to activate the contingency contract to handle the routine flow of migrants across the Southwest border." Boyd said the agency is continuing to seek out additional detention space through contracts with state and local correctional institutions and the creation of new detention facilities.

This latter effort, however, is so far obtaining mixed results, mainly because state and local facilities are already bulging. In Minnesota, for example, Ramsey County officials have already decided not to take any more immigration detainees. The same response is cropping up elsewhere as well.

The KBR contract, in reality, represents a bigger problem: the expansion of mass detention facilities, including those like Hutto designed to house families, is an ominous development in a country where authoritarianism, fed by fearfulness, is increasingly rearing its head — especially when, as in these cases, there are profits involved for corporations like Halliburton or CCA. It's not the kind of America, I think, any of us wants to see again — an America where, in a fit of pique, we deprived thousands of their rights and treated them like animals.

As I noted earlier:

The problem, though, is that these kinds of facilities are so open to abuse — that is, they're quite readily converted to other purposes, as some immigrant advocates observe later in the [New York Times] piece:
 
Advocates for immigrants said they feared that the new contract was another indication that the government planned to expand the detention of illegal immigrants, including those seeking asylum.

"It's pretty obvious that the intent of the government is to detain more and more people and to expedite their removal," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

Nor is that the only potential area of abuse. These facilities also have a history of being used to deprive citizens of their civil liberties, embodied in the World War II internment camps. Some of the camps' most vociferous progressive critics point this out as well:

For those who follow covert government operations abroad and at home, the contract evoked ominous memories of Oliver North's controversial Rex-84 "readiness exercise" in 1984. This called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to round up and detain 400,000 imaginary "refugees," in the context of "uncontrolled population movements" over the Mexican border into the United States. North's activities raised civil liberties concerns in both Congress and the Justice Department. The concerns persist.

"Almost certainly this is preparation for a roundup after the next 9/11 for Mid-Easterners, Muslims and possibly dissenters," says Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. military's account of its activities in Vietnam. "They've already done this on a smaller scale, with the 'special registration' detentions of immigrant men from Muslim countries, and with Guantanamo."

Considering these latter points, Ellsberg's fears are at least not groundless, and may prove prophetic.

So it seems almost inevitable that we will be seeing more of these mass detention centers, particularly as Bush's announced plan to arrest more illegal immigrants takes full effect. The almost certain byproduct will be that we will see more and more of them designed to accommodate whole families, including citizen children, and the record so far indicates that the conditions will once again be those of a concentration camp.

The law of unintended consequences is arising here. In their determination to arrest illegal immigrants, the government — acting, in the end, at the behest of nativist agitators — is potentially putting itself in the business of splitting up families, since many of these illegal immigrants are the parents of citizen children. So to avoid that outcome, the only solution available is to incarcerate those children alongside their parents. The end result: concentration camps — euphemistically designated "family detention centers" as part of an effort to "secure our borders."

It's not as though our history has not warned us. This was the same predicament the government found itself in back in 1942, as it was contemplating the evacuation of potential "enemy aliens" from the Pacific Coast — namely, the resident population of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. The first-generation Issei immigrants — who had been barred by law from naturalizing — were the only class they could actually designate "enemy aliens" and evacuate with some impunity. But most of these Issei had Nisei children and even Sansei grandchildren — all of whom were American citizens — living in their care, and evacuating them would leave these families without providers.

Page Smith, in Democracy On Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, describes the debate among the various persons involved in the decision [pp. 112-113]:

There was an air verging on desperation that hung over the numerous discussions of what was to be done. Various alternatives to "mass evacuation" were debated endlessly. James Rowe [Attorney General Francis Biddle's assistant], and Edward Ennis, head of the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Control Division, suggested that the Kibei [American citizen Nisei who had been educated in Japan] be expatriated to Japan on the grounds that having been educated in Japan and having, in most instances, that troublesome dual citizenship, it was reasonable to assume that most of them were loyal to the Emperor. But the principal obstacle to such a far-reaching and expensive plan was constitutional rather than practical. They were, after all, U.S. citizens and there would doubtlessly be unsurmountable legal problems in any plan for expatriation. To ship some nine thousand Nisei back to Japan under wartime conditions would present staggering logistical problems. [Lt. Col. Karl] Bendetsen and [Provost Marshal General Allen] Gullion [the chief co-architects of the internment] and discussed the notion of repatriating the Issei, who numbered some forty thousand, but that seemed even more impractical. An alternative that was debated by Bendetsen and Gullion (and doubtlessly many others) was simply evacuating the Issei. But that would mean, inevitably breaking up families. Where were the Issei to go in any event?

In the end, the government settled on what seemed the simplest approach: mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent, citizen or otherwise. Of the 70,000 or so Nisei who were incarcerated, some 40,000 of them were minor children.

It's important to understand that the internment of Japanese Americans was not the result of a nefarious design by racist schemers within the government, but was the natural outcome of a belief bereft of either humanity or truth — that is, that all Japanese Americans were potential traitors — and fueled by a heedless hysteria, working its way through the bureaucracy. The government more fell into the internment episode of World War II than it was driven there.

We're in the process of falling into the same mistake — regardless of whatever euphemisms we devise to disguise it.

Photo of Manzanar Relocation Center by Dorothea Lange, 1943.