LOS ANGELES — At dawn on July 19, nearly 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents burst into the home home of Carmen Bonilla, 44. The agents were searching for “Robert” an alleged drug dealer, but ended up terrifying Bonilla and her son Michael, 16, daughter Josefina, 23, daughter-in-law Leticia, 28, and two of her granddaughters.
According to Jessica Dominguez, the family’s lawyer, and Jorge Mario Cabrera, spokesperson of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the family was subjected to “different levels of physical and verbal abuse,” including screaming, “kicking, beating and aggression.” Their treatment was documented last week by HuffPost LatinoVoices’ Jorge Luis Macías.
What happened to the Bonillas has happened to thousands of immigrant families. Immigration authorities — both local police and federal ICE agents — have embarked on a program to seek out “criminal illegal aliens” and, whether they find them or not, have often rounded up entire families for deportation.
Even though the Bonilla family members do not have criminal records, they face removal proceedings before an immigration judge. The family was able to find legal representation and general public support, enabling their release from ICE custody, but undocumented immigrants who are less lucky are routinely sent to prisons and detention centers where ICE will process their paperwork and decide whether they may be released.
“If they have a criminal record, particularly a drug or security-related conviction, or a felony or violent crime, or crime of moral turpitude, they will likely have to remain in custody until their trial before the [immigration judge],” explained Aggie R. Hoffman, an immigration attorney.
The Department of Homeland Security pays between $50 to $200 per day per person to local, county and state prisons to house apprehended aliens. A few years ago, a series I wrote for La Opinión showed how prisons in general, and California’s prisons in particular, benefit from the largesse of the federal government and vie for a piece of this lucrative business. At that time, I visited a detention center in Lancaster, Calif., run by the Sheriff of Los Angeles, where immigrants rounded up in raids were housed until their deportation or legal proceedings. The process is supposed to take just a few days, but some of the detainees rushed to tell me that they had been kept there for more than two years.
“This happens frequently because the courts are so backlogged; not enough judges to hear the cases of those being held”, explained Hoffman.
But the incarceration trend is not limited to public prisons. Thanks to a concerted lobbying push from the corrections industry, growing numbers of undocumented immigrants could end up in private detention facilities.
Over the past three years, immigration politics has seen more restrictive legislation at the state level and the unprecedented enforcement of current laws by the Obama administration. Together, the laws and the stepped up enforcement have the potential to bring tens of thousands of individuals into for-profit jails.
The recent animated video “Immigrants for Sale” by the activist group Cuéntame illustrates some facts behind the connection between the ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration and the for-profit corrections industry.
The video follows the trail of money and political power behind this piece of the national immigration debate. Its creators say it’s an attempt to uncover what lies behind the positions and ideologies in a discussion in which statements and accusations made at maximum volume have long replaced the open exchange of ideas and opinions.