DU law professor makes the case for abolishing immigration prisons

University of Denver law professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández wants to introduce you to Diego Rivera Rosario. To Gerardo Armijo and Kamyar Samimi. And to hundreds of thousands of others born on the south side of happenstance.  

They’re all real-life characters — human beings with families, virtues, flaws and complicated contexts — in García Hernández’s recently released “Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking up Immigrants” (The New Press, 2019). Part dispassionate review of history and policy and part impassioned argument for demolishing immigration prisons, the book is aimed at changing the national discourse about migration and incarceration.

“My goal,” García Hernández says, “is to inject into public conversations the simple question of whether we ought to lock up migrants.”

Migrants like little Diego. A Honduran by birth, he had, by the time he was 3, spent 650 days of his life in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility for children, also known as a “baby jail.”

Migrants like Armijo, a permanent resident of García Hernández’s hometown on the U.S.-Mexico border. Armijo served his country in Iraq, where he suffered injuries from an explosion. After returning to Texas, the traumatized Purple Heart recipient sought solace in illegal drugs. A subsequent arrest for possession sent him on an unceremonious trip to an ICE detention center.

And migrants like Samimi, who became a permanent resident in 1976. Nearly three decades later, he was convicted of cocaine possession and sentenced to community service. A dozen years after that, his debt to society paid, Samimi was arrested by ICE and incarcerated at a privately owned detention center in Aurora, Colorado. According to an internal review spurred by a congressman’s inquiry, he died there of a heart attack, a victim of substandard medical care.

Their stories testify to the human side of García Hernández’s legal specialty. His highly regarded first book, “Crimmigration Law” (American Bar Association, 2015), explores the intersection between criminal law and immigration law. That territory is also covered at crimmigration.com, a blog he publishes to track emerging developments. It has become essential reading for students, faculty and practicing lawyers focused on the legal plight of immigrants.

With its personal perspective and compelling human stories, “Migrating to Prison,” is taking García Hernández’s work to an audience of everyday citizens. In the weeks following the book’s release, he shared its findings and arguments at a TEDxMileHigh event and, via an op-ed, with readers of the New York Times.

“A lot of people have an intuitive sense that there is something happening in our name that is problematic,” he says of his fellow U.S. citizens. “But they don’t have the understanding of our past, and [they don’t have] the language with which to grapple with the reality of immigration law enforcement right now. What I’m trying to do is give people the language and give people some of the historical context.”

On any given day in the United States, García Hernández explains, a mind-boggling number of people are awaiting due process in the nation’s growing number of immigration prisons, many of whose premises are demarcated by barbed wire. Some prisons are operated by private companies, others by public agencies. Regardless, most of the facilities — not to mention the bureaucracies tasked with conducting hearings and processing paperwork — are overwhelmed.

Just how bad is the incarceration rate?

“We have upwards of half a million people who are locked up every single year while the government decides whether they’re going to be allowed to stay in the United States,” he says, comparing that to 1970, when the U.S. saw only 575 people charged with an immigration crime.

In making his case for abolishing immigration prisons, García Hernández treks systematically through U.S. history, beginning with the Naturalization Act of 1790 and ending with today’s predicament. Along the way, he lingers over the mid-20th century, when the nation’s chief executive, lawmakers and federal judges all but jettisoned the country’s detention policies. And as “Migrating to Prison” makes clear, the country did not descend into chaos.

The book also chronicles the retreat from those policies. In outlining that evolution, García Hernández reserves special responsibility for the country’s current president and his predecessor. Under the latter, he reminds readers, the Department of Homeland Security locked up an unprecedented number of migrants, and President Trump has done his best to exceed that.  But it was the Obama record that spurred García Hernández to write “Migrating to Prison.”

“I realized I wanted to tell this specific story in the late years of the Obama administration, because it was being overlooked. Everything that was happening at that moment in the nation’s history, the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of people losing their liberty simply because they came to the United States under the wrong circumstances, was something that was unknown to people. I couldn’t get people to hear that,” he recalls.

Perhaps now they are ready to hear. As he tours the country promoting “Migrating to Prison,” García Hernández is banking on the notion that readers and citizens, armed with facts and insight into the human cost of current policies, can still be persuaded.

“I do have this lingering hope that we as a nation can take a different path,” Garcia Hernandez says. “[That hope] is informed by our past. It’s informed by the fact that at one point in our past, during the Eisenhower administration, a Republican president decided this isn’t the right way of doing things and decided we should shut down the facilities we had at the time. …  And we did. It’s a reminder to me that these are not things that come to us from on high. They come to us from the democratic process, messy as it is. And the democratic process still responds to the will of the people, the political community that is the United States.”  

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