To understand the psychological impact of immigrant detention, we must also look at incarceration. Though they may not seem intimately related, it is no coincidence that both anti-immigrant legislation and “three strikes” incarceration policies became central focuses of lawmakers almost simultaneously more than two decades ago.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIR), signed into law by President Bill Clinton, expanded the list of “deportable” offenses and included a section that codified the practice of utilizing local and state police agencies to aid in immigration enforcement. Together, these provisions created a deportation infrastructure, later expanded in the post-9/11 era, that is now being used to target immigrant communities.
As anti-immigrant panic was reaching fever pitch, the systems of incarceration also witnessed a dramatic infrastructural shift. The so-called War on Drugs, initiated under President Richard Nixon, spurred a boom in jail construction in the 1970s and 1980s. These anti-drug policies often targeted people of color with disproportionate monitoring and enforcement. Though these policies were introduced by Republicans, Democrats joined in as well, pushing forth and championing more restrictive laws — namely the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also signed into law by Clinton, which eventually led to prison overcrowding and significant economic inequality.
Two decades later, we see the effects. Those who bear the brunt of these policies are struggling with the psychological impact.
For immigrants, detention creates a litany of issues that ripple beyond the individual experience.
For immigrants, detention creates a litany of issues that ripple beyond the individual experience. The American Psychological Association noted that detention often leads to depression, PTSD, anxiety, social isolation, self-stigma and withdrawal. Symptoms were persistent regardless of whether detention was relegated to one person or the family unit and impacted both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons. In 2017, Reuters found that individuals incarcerated as youth were prone to poor health in later years.
Besides the obvious connection in policy origin, one other key element is how immigrant detention and mass incarceration are a profitable venture for corporations like CoreCivic and the GEO Group who staff and manage over 170 prisons and detention centers nationwide. The decrepit conditions in for-profit prisons illustrate crass capitalistic social mores that are years in the making. Inhumane policies, emanating from both political parties, have created a leviathan that profits from human suffering.
We are not immune in the Northwest. Presently, detainees at the Northwest Detention Center are engaging in a hunger strike and young organizers are fighting the construction of the new Children and Family Justice Center.
Current conditions are bleak. Nonetheless, resistance points toward imagining a new reality. People must be placed above private prison profits.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and works and resides in Seattle. He has previously contributed to HistoryLink.org and the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.
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