October 11, 2011, 2:16 pm ET
Last year, the Obama administration set new records for detaining and deporting immigrants who were inside the country illegally. The government plans to best those numbers in 2011, removing more than 400,000 people. In partnership with American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, FRONTLINE correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes a penetrating look at Obama’s vastly expanded immigration net, explores the controversial Secure Communities enforcement program and goes inside the hidden world of immigration detention in Lost in Detention, airing Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).
President Obama, who opposed some strict immigration measures while a candidate in 2008, says that his enforcement programs are part of a strategy to win comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization for some of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. But with reform efforts at a standstill, Obama supporters, especially Latino voters, say they are angry about the administration’s approach. “I expected better from him,” says Nena Torres, a former informal adviser to the presidential campaign. “I don’t think I ever contemplated the fact that maybe he would be worse than any other American president of the United States on the issue of immigration.”
FRONTLINE begins its investigation in Obama’s home state of Illinois, where Hinojosa examines the impact of the Secure Communities enforcement program. Secure Communities combines Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records with those of the FBI and local law enforcement. According to the White House, it’s been a critical tool for targeting criminal aliens for removal, a priority for the administration.
“What DHS (Department of Homeland Security) is doing is prioritizing the folks who present the greatest harm for people, who have committed crimes, who have been convicted of crimes in this country, and not people who were lower priorities,” says Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs.
But FRONTLINE discovers that the program has lost support among political leaders in the state and some in law enforcement. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Sheriff Mark Curran, a Republican from Lake County, Ill., were both supporters of the program when ICE began operating it in the state in 2009. But they say the program has not delivered what it promised and has instead created more problems for the state, and a backlash among immigrants.
“When I deal with the Latino community throughout Lake County,” Curran says, “there is fear that’s running through these communities. They know all about Secure Communities. They know the horror stories of their uncle or their brother that committed the most ticky-tack of offenses and got incarcerated as a result and is now being deported.”
Hinojosa talks to the family of Roxana Garcia, whose five children—all U.S. citizens—have been without their mother since she was stopped for a minor traffic infraction and deported to Mexico after 15 years in the United States. Stories like theirs have spurred Latinos in particular to rally against a policy that they say rips families apart.
Hinojosa tracks the enforcement sweep from the neighborhoods of Illinois to the expansive Willacy Detention Center in south Texas. Immigration detention has become both a vital tool and a lightning rod for the administration’s immigration strategy.
Using a network of 250 detention facilities across the country, ICE is able to ensure that undocumented immigrants will not slip back into the population in a game of “catch and release,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “That’s unacceptable if you’re going to have an immigration system that is taken seriously—seriously by the public or seriously by the illegal immigrants themselves.”
During a yearlong investigation, FRONTLINE uncovered a troubling picture of abuse inside immigration detention facilities, including more than a dozen allegations of sexual abuse at Willacy, as well as alleged cases of beatings, racism and management cover-ups. Dr. Twana Cooks-Allen, former mental health coordinator at Willacy, told Hinojosa that the detainees she saw inside were not the border-crossers who she expected. “They were people who had been established, who had children here, who had businesses, who had attended school.”
Most alarming, Cooks-Allen says, were accounts of physical and sexual abuse. “I knew something was wrong when I started getting women coming in complaining about being harassed by guards for sexual favors.” Hinojosa talks to one former detainee who confided in a female guard that she had been sexually abused and threatened by another guard. The female guard’s advice: Keep quiet. “She said to me,” explains the former detainee, “that if you go to ICE and you complain or you write a report, it’s going to be worse for you.”
The program reveals government documents recently obtained by the ACLU and FRONTLINE that offer the most significant window into sexual abuse in immigration detention. They indicate a more endemic problem for detainees inside detention, who lack the due process and oversight afforded to criminal prisons.
As Obama gears up for the 2012 campaign, political experts say that his immigration policies have done little to win him the support of conservatives or independents, while potentially alienating Latino voters who favored him heavily in 2008. Some analysts say the issue could affect the electoral results in key swing states.
Lost in Detention is a FRONTLINE co-production with the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. The producers are Rick Young, Margaret Ebrahim and Catherine Rentz. The writer and director is Rick Young. The correspondent is Maria Hinojosa. The reporter is Andrew Becker of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The executive producer of special projects for FRONTLINE is Michael Sullivan. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and by Reva and David Logan. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation and by the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund. Special thanks to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for providing funding for some original reporting on this topic. FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by the Media Access Group at WGBH. FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
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