Immigration policy has a security problem, but not the kind you think

Immigrant inmates line up for breakfast at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. Striped uniforms and pink undergarments...
Immigrant inmates line up for breakfast at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. Striped uniforms and pink undergarments...
John Moore/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, a number of prominent Republican lawmakers have listed “the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system” as a top security priority. Although the immigration reform legislation drafted by the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” includes severe border triggers and other enforcement measures, conservatives such as Sens. Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul have suggested that more must be done to crack down on unauthorized immigration.

From listening to the border hawks, one might be left with the impression that current immigration enforcement is dangerously lenient. But in fact, the opposite is true: Not only is enforcement swift and brutal for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., but it has only grown more so in recent years.

Over the past five years, President Obama has presided over an unprecedented explosion in deportations; in fact, if current trends hold, by 2014 the Obama administration may have deported more than two million immigrants. In mid-February, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials approved new guidelines that could put that target well within reach, according to documents obtained by USA Today.

Immigration authorities’ new methods of boosting deportations, USA Today’s Brad Heath reports, including “trolling state driver’s license records for information about foreign-born applicants, dispatching U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to traffic safety checkpoints conducted by police departments, and processing more illegal immigrants who had been booked into jails for low-level offenses.”

Some state laws add to the growing pile of deportations, notably Arizona’s SB 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop if they believe there is a “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented.

But when the government puts so much emphasis on maximizing deportations, mistakes are bound to happen. In fact, the ACLU estimates that roughly 100 citizens are wrongfully deported each year. In one 2012 case, a 15-year-old Texan girl was wrongfully deported to Colombia, only returning to the United States after eight months. In another case, a mentally disabled 19-year-old boy from Georgia spent two years bouncing around Latin America following his deportation.

Furthermore, not everyone who gets caught in the deportation dragnet is deported right away. When an accused undocumented immigrant is detained by immigration authorities, she might need to wait months, or even years, before her case is processed. In the meantime, she’s likely to be held in one of the country’s 204 immigrant detention facility.

Immigrant detention is “the fastest-growing incarceration system in the United States,” according to Frontline’s Gretchen Gavett. “Three million immigrants have been held in detention facilities across the country during the past decade.” Those detainees include “illegal immigrants who have been caught coming over the border, asylum seekers and anyone with or without a criminal record who has been found to be in the country illegally by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

In 1981, America’s immigrant detention facilities held an average of only 54 people per day. In 2011, the number was 32,095.

The conditions in some of those detention facilities can be brutal. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges that sexual abuse is rampant, with as many as 200 allegations of sexual abuse being documented between 2007 and 2011.

“It’s really hidden,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel of the ACLU, recently told NBCLatino. “And that’s why it’s happened on such a large scale, because nobody’s expected it and nobody’s been watching.”

This is the flip-side of an unforgiving approach to immigration enforcement: Not the dangerous offenders who slip through the cracks, but the innocents and non-violent offenders who get humiliated, incarcerated, or deported outright.

Tightening enforcement even further is unlikely to prevent another Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but it could have disastrous consequences for thousands of others who never posed a threat.