By Laura Rotolo, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Massachusetts
I'm an immigrant and I had it easy. When my parents made the heartbreaking decision to leave Argentina because the political and economic situation made life too dangerous and difficult — when they decided that the best they could do for their two small daughters was to leave behind their family, friends and culture, and relocate to the United States — they took a bold and painful step towards the future. They worked tirelessly to give our family the opportunity to thrive. My mother started out as a messenger carrying documents throughout Manhattan. To this day, she knows the city like the back of her hand. My father continues to work 10-12 hour days six days a week driving a truck.
But compared to the life immigrants like us face today, we had it really easy. You see, I came to this country with a shiny little document called a green card. Today, immigrants like me have few or no options to come to the United States legally. The wait-times for some visas can be decades long. Today, most people in my family's desperate situation come to the United States illegally.
They come because life in their home country has become unbearable — they cannot feed their children or keep them out of harm's way. What's missing from the immigration debate is the fact that most immigrants don't want to leave their country. Most immigrants don't come because the grass is greener in the U.S. — they come because there is no grass in their home country. They work hard, pay taxes, learn English, adopt American traditions, and do the best they can to make a life for themselves and their family.
That is why I was devastated to learn of the deplorable conditions that thousands of immigrants face every day when ICE arrests them and incarcerates them until they can be deported. For the past two years, I have been working in Massachusetts under a grant from the ACLU Human Rights Project to document conditions for immigration detainees in this state. What I found shocked and disturbed me.
I interviewed immigrants who had spent months and even years locked up in local county jails fighting for their chance to stay in the country. They told me stories of being denied medical care, being harassed by guards, being transferred from one jail to another with no warning or justification, being unable to receive visits from family-members, being housed with violent criminals, languishing in overcrowded jails where gyms are converted into housing by adding rows and rows of bunk beds and mattresses on the floor, not having books or newspapers to read, not being able to go out into the fresh air, being fed stale bologna sandwiches for months on end.
As I was listening to these stories, I thought "this could have been me." Instead of going to college, then law school, taking the oath of citizenship and becoming a full member of this society, I could have been in a cell next to a convicted criminal, fearing for my safety and unable to see or touch my loved ones.
I felt that these immigrants embraced America as much as I did, but America did not embrace them back. What is different today? The answer is the government's new, post-9/11 aggressive policy against immigrants. In 2003, the government deported 186,000 people. Last year, it deported 349,000. And its strategic plan Operation Endgame calls for the deportation of all deportable persons by the year 2012.
What did these people do to deserve such harsh treatment? I believe that they are simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — immigrants have become this era's scapegoats for many of the problems our nation faces. Job losses? Blame the Mexicans who steal our jobs. No health care? Blame the illegals who use our hospitals. You get the point.
Today, we're releasing the results of this investigation in a report called Detention and Deportation in the Age of ICE. The title is telling. ICE's enforcement strategies send chills down the spines of thousands of immigrants. The report is a thorough look at the situation in Massachusetts, complete with personal stories and hundreds of pages of the government's own documentation. I hope it opens up a window into an area that most people know nothing about, and that it sheds some light onto a system that has grown out of control in the shadows.
I think America is better than this. After WWII, when we were outraged by the atrocities in Europe, we stood up and gave life to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, lifting up the basic human dignity of all people. Now, we must turn an eye inward. When we treat the most vulnerable among us in a way that degrades and denies their human dignity, we degrade and deny the very qualities that make our country a beacon of hope for so many.