The airing of the PBS Frontline documentary Lost in Detention last week is part of a growing awareness across the country of the gravity of the Bush-Obama immigrant detention dragnet.

White House immigration advisor Cecilia Muñoz

I thought the film itself lacked focus and was dramatized in an unfortunate, made-for-television way. But the accompanying website, linked above is very useful and contains full text of the interviews that were obviously cut into sound bytes for the film, like this one of Obama Administration director of intergovernmental affairs and immigration advisor Cecilia Muñoz:

Frontline: Does President Obama believe that his aggressive policy in immigration and enforcement has been successful?

Cecilia Muñoz: The president has said a number of times, he swore an oath to uphold the law. It’s our responsibility to enforce the laws that we’ve got. Congress gives us resources to enforce the laws that we’ve got. But how we do it matters a lot. He’s talked about that as well.

And later in the interview, Muñoz picks up this same idea.

Muñoz: But at the end of the day, when you have immigration law that’s broken and you have a community of 10 million, 11 million people living and working in the United States illegally, some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children.

They don’t have to like it, but it is a result of having a broken system of laws. And the answer to that problem is reforming the law, making sure that we have an immigration system that works here. You can’t fix the heartbreaking things that happen as a result of immigration enforcement just through enforcement policy. You have to fix that by reforming the law, and that requires the Congress to act, which is why the president has been pushing them so hard.

It’s the same line that unnamed ICE officials have taken on a recent report from the UC-Berkeley Law School condemning Secure Communities for, among other things, possibly arresting some 3,600 American citizens.

ICE officials called the report “misleading and inaccurate,” saying Secure Communities has enhanced public safety and that the report failed to acknowledge ICE’s responsibility to determine who is in the country illegally.

“If there is a question about an individual’s status, ICE conducts appropriate follow-up. If the individual is a U.S. citizen, ICE takes no additional action. In exercising its civil immigration functions, ICE does not detain U.S. citizens,” the agency said in a statement released in response to the report.—Identical quote at San Jose Mercury News and Salon.com

The report in question expands on an American Immigration Lawyers’ Association survey that we wrote about in August. The University of California—Berkeley Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy completed a study of Secure Communities [full report .pdf]. Among the findings:

  • Approximately 3,600 United States citizens have been arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program
  • More than one-third (39%) of individuals arrested through Secure Communities report that they have a U.S. citizen spouse (5%) or child (37%), meaning that approximately 88,000 families with U.S. citizen members have been impacted by Secure Communities
  • Latinos comprise 93% of individuals arrested through Secure Communities though they only comprise 77% of the undocumented population in the United States

Let me repeat that: based on extrapolations of a smaller data set that the law school obtained through the settlement of a lawsuit between ICE and the National Day Labor Organizing Network, 3,600 U.S. citizens may have been held by ICE since October 2008 and some 88,000 families with U.S. citizen members have been affected by Secure Communities.

“Overall, the findings point to a system in which individuals are pushed through rapidly, without appropriate checks or opportunities to challenge their detention and/or deportation. This conclusion is particularly concerning given that the findings also reveal that people are being apprehended who should never have been placed in immigration custody, and that certain groups are over-represented in our sample population.” —Warren Report

The most chilling line in the report, for me, is that the family connections of detainees to U.S. citizens are likely underestimates: “… as immigrants may fear disclosing personal information to immigration authorities, particularly if they live in mixed-status families and fear negative consequences for family members because many detainees do not want to implicate their families in their immigration cases.”

But it works the other way as well. The 88,000 or more American families caught in this system are often not able or willing to speak out on behalf of their detained relatives because of legal concerns, family complications, lack of access to media, advocacy groups or legal aid and their sheer need to survive while a spouse or parent is held and likely deported. And so we rarely hear their stories. Obama does not hear their stories. Republican presidential candidates do not hear the stories of American citizens detained by ICE or the American spouses of immigrants put in deportation proceeding because of a broken tail light.

That is the collateral damage that Muñoz calls inevitable in our democracy, a mere budget line item, and the cost of doing law enforcement.

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