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The History Behind the Border and Immigrant Detention Centers

How can history help us understand the detention of undocumented immigrants along the Southern border? At the American Historical Association’s annual meeting earlier this month, four historians examined this issue from different angles on a panel entitled Late Breaking: The Border Crisis in Historical Perspective. 

First, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapl Hill, examined how the history of human rights and torture illuminates the detention of migrants. 

All refugees are guaranteed broad protections under international law. These protections included a promise that an asylum seeker would not be returned to the country they were fleeing and protections for minor children and families. 

These protections were less consequential in reality than hoped. The international law had no methods for monitoring or formal enforcement mechanisms. Instead, it relied on the good will of signatory nations. The United States adopted the narrowest definitions of asylum and persecution so it only applied to a small portion of migrants. 

In 2005, under George W. Bush’s administration, the United States began deporting apprehended migrants using “expedited removal.” Operation Streamline established zero tolerance towards unauthorized border crossings and made it a misdemeanor. Deportations subsequently skyrocketed. Barack Obama expanded the policy and the number of people prosecuted for unauthorized border crossings quadrupled. 

Now, President Donald J. Trump has created an unprecedented campaign to delegitimize and dehumanize asylum seekers. Trump casts the southern border as a national security dilemma. Historically, national security has always been the largest justification for violating civil liberties and human rights. 

For much of American history, immigration was not considered a law enforcement issue. At the end of the 19th century, the government created formal oversight of immigration and placed it in the Department of the Treasury. In 1903, the duty moved to the Department of Labor. Then, in 1940 immigration oversight moved to the Department of Justice. In 2011, the oversight of immigration moved to the Department of Homeland Security solidifying that immigration was considered a matter of national security. This latest move is particularly troubling because the Department of Homeland Security has very little oversight so it’s hard for lawmakers to regulate its actions.

Recent news coverage has illuminated the systematic and pervasive human rights violations of agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Most egregiously, families are separated and people are indefinitely detained.  Inhumane conditions have amplified the problem, especially overcrowding. 

The intent of such policies is to make conditions in immigration detention so bad that asylum seekers will think twice about seeking asylum in the United States.

This indefinite detention is a glaring violation of the UN's ban of torture. Discussions of torture always involve debates over what torture actually is. Some defend it by dismissing any suggestion that it was actually torture. The controversy over the term “concentration camps” for the immigrant detention facilities shows the tension of the moment. 

The bottom line, however, is that the DHS and DOJ are committing huge violations of human rights. Trump will say these policies are necessary for national security, but the evidence shows that asylum and immigration enforcement are meant to intimidate, humiliate, and terrorize. 

Lauren Pearlman from the University of Florida discussed the economics of immigration detention with a specific focus on the role the private prison industry plays in immigration policy. 

Ellis Island, opened in 1882, was the first detention center created for immigrants. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that large numbers of people began to be detained. 

In 1988, Congress passed the Anti Drug Abuse Act and it demanded the detention of any noncitizens who committed a felony. The aftermath of September 11, 2001 cemented the securitization of immigration detention policy. The newly created Department of Homeland Security now took over the duties previously administered by the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) under the Department of Justice.   

The Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) was one of the first to utilize private prison operators. By 1988, 800 of 2400 people in INS custody were housed in private facilities. 

Andrea Miller, an anthropologist at the University of California Davis, examined drones, air policing, and immigration. Dr. Miller asserted it was important to understand the longstanding connection between war power and police power. Atmospheric policing technologies (like helicopters, airplanes, and balloons) have long been used to control populations and are connected to tear gas, sonic weaponry, etc. 

Recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) announced it would test a small drone system weighing just 14 pounds. Incorporating this technology could reduce situation awareness gaps and “enhance situation awareness,” a military term that denotes the ability to extend police awareness beyond human ability. 

The use of drones also broadens the extensive system of surveillance of immigration. Today, undocumented immigrants are most likely to be apprehended in a traffic stop. ICE has access to data from license plate scans and readers. This data is stored and can be requested to create snapshots of where people live, travel, etc. This mirrors the same method of life analysis utilized in the War on Terror. Data points are placed in relation to each other to see patterns of mobility and figure out if someone is threatening. 

Dr. Miller is also interested in the connections between military tactics and tools and local police forces. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department first acquired drones in 2014. By 2017, the LAPD posted suggests guidelines for its unmanned aviation vehicle (UAV) pilot program that is now formally adopted. To Miller, it is telling that police and immigration agencies are adopting similar technologies adapted from the military. 

Finally, Stuart Schrader of Johns Hopkins University discussed El Salvador and the history of border patrol aid. 

Dr. Schrader examined the legacy of aid and immigration in the context of El Salvador. As Trump threatened to cut off aid to Central America, news circulated in September 2019 that El Salvador received enough American assistance to create a new border control agency. The agency would consist of 400 officers, 300 of whom would be dedicated to immigration and the other 100 working as part of a national police force. 

The United States has offered technical assistance to border patrol for a long time. In the 1950’s and ‘60s, the State Department worked with El Salvador to improve its structure of surveillance at its borders. 

U.S. assistance has always been designed to meet American policy goals. Previously, the U.S. Border Patrol was central to sate building and fighting the Cold War in the third world. Today, the U.S. is providing assistance to places like El Salvador to keep people inside their country and prevent them from immigrating to the U.S. The irony is that the U.S. is responsible for creating many of the problems that El Salvadorians are trying to escape and attempting to prevent people from leaving creates more pressure on El Salvador. 

Each of these perspectives offers a historical frame to help us understand the deep historical trends that shape daily headlines.