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In the News: The Immigration Debate

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We’re preparing for Lost in Detention — our upcoming film on immigration airing Oct. 18 (check local listings) — and have been keeping our eye on a number of related stories in the news this week:

+ Nearly 3,000 arrested in crackdown on immigrants with criminal records: This summer, the Obama administration announced it would prioritize (PDF) the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants who “pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety,” as well as repeat immigration violators.

Yesterday, it made good on that promise, announcing that nearly 3,000 “convicted criminal aliens” had been arrested during a nationwide, week-long operation by ICE’s Fugitive Operations program. Among those arrested:

+ 1,600 had been convicted of felonies, ranging from manslaughter to drug trafficking to sexual crimes against minors
+ 681 were immigration fugitives, meaning they had been ordered to leave the country but failed to do so
+ 368 already had been deported multiple times

This summer’s shift in policy came amidst criticism (from social justice groups and state officials alike) that the administration’s highly publicized Secure Communities program — a new high-tech way of tracking immigration violators via fingerprint data — is sowing fear and deporting low-level offenders (or people without records at all).

+ Alabama’s Tough Immigration Law Upheld: On Wednesday, Federal District Court Judge Sharon Blackburn upheld much of the state’s new immigration policy, which was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley [R] in June, and is considered to be the strictest in the nation.

The Justice Department had challenged the statute, known as HB-56, arguing it goes far beyond federal guidelines. Among its requirements:

+ Police must determine the immigration status of anyone they came across who they suspect might not be a U.S. citizen
+ Undocumented immigrants are barred from enrolling in state colleges and universities
+ No one can knowingly transport, house or rent to a person of undocumented status
+ Public institutions — including public schools — must verify the immigration status of their students

Though the judge blocked parts of the law pertaining to “harboring or transporting” undocumented immigrants and preventing them from enrolling in public universities, the most controversial aspect of the law — allowing officers to verify a person’s legal status during routine traffic stops — is still on the books.

But the ruling does not seem to have deterred the Justice Department; The Washington Post reports today that it’s considering taking the “extraordinary step” of challenging similar laws in four other states — Utah, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina.

Update [10/07/11]: The U.S. Justice Department today asked a federal appeals court to halt the enforcement of the Alabama law, claiming it “is highly likely to expose persons lawfully in the United States, including school children, to new difficulties in routine dealings.”

+ Inside Private Detention Centers: Today New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein looked at the lucrative business of private detention centers, who are capitalizing on immigration crackdowns around the world. One striking stat:

In the United States — with almost 400,000 annual detentions in 2010, up from 280,000 in 2005 — private companies now control nearly half of all detention beds, compared with only 8 percent in state and federal prisons, according to government figures.

For background, read Tom Barry’s extensive 2009 Boston Review investigation into the public-private immigration detention centers in the U.S.

Photo: Suspects wait to be transported during a 2007 pre-dawn raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP/Mark Avery)

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