Columnist Razvan Sibii: Undocumented immigrants suffer from incarceration lite

  • Razvan Sibii

Published: 2/14/2022 6:07:06 PM

When the Trump administration started incarcerating all undocumented immigrants, regardless of the degree of risk they posed to public safety, all progressives and many centrists were outraged. When they started separating migrant families and deporting the parents summarily, the remaining centrists and most conservatives also felt outrage.

So when the Biden administration came in, they were careful to promise to drastically limit the incarceration of non-dangerous immigrants, to do away with private prisons, and to pursue alternative methods of ensuring that immigrants don’t fall off the map while waiting for their case to be adjudicated.

A year later, the first two of those promises are yet to be fulfilled. At least as many immigrants are in detention now as there were before (in part because of a recent surge in apprehensions of undocumented immigrants), and for-profit immigration detention is alive and well.

The Biden administration is indeed actively trying to find alternatives to incarceration, but the solution they seem to have settled on — ankle monitors — is meeting with protest from immigration advocates.

In short, the activists argue that the GPS monitoring devices ICE increasingly puts on undocumented immigrants before letting them go into the interior of the U.S. (with a reminder to show up in court when their time comes) are still coercive measures that needlessly (re-)victimize people. A study released in July 2021 by Freedom for Immigrants, Immigrant Defense Project and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law showed that ankle monitors (or, as the authors put it, “e-carceration”) negatively impact the wearer’s physical health, mental health, social integration and financial situation.

The immigrants interviewed by the report’s authors described such harms as electric shocks, impaired blood circulation, excessive heat, swelling, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, social isolation, stigma, retraumatization, and missed or lost job opportunities.

OK, but surely “e-carceration” is still better than walls-and-barbed-wire incarceration, right? Yes, it is. The problem, however, is that Biden’s Democrats still can’t shake the “national security” lense through which they, too, see the issue of undocumented immigration. Slapping ankle monitors on undocumented immigrants makes sense only if 1) you’re trying to punish them for breaking the law, or 2) you’re afraid they won’t show up in court and you’ll lose them for good. Neither of these holds up well under scrutiny.

Contrary to what many Americans think, undocumented immigrants pose no significant threat to law and order. First-time illegal entry into the United States is a federal misdemeanor, comparable to possession of marijuana. (What’s more, only about half of undocumented immigrants cross the border fraudulently; the others simply overstay their visas). Once in America, they commit fewer crimes than non-immigrants. Treating them like hardcore criminals is a political choice, not a necessary measure.

As for the fear that they’ll disappear and never come before an immigration judge if they’re not kept under constant surveillance, immigrant advocates say it is simply unfounded.

“We surveyed legal service providers, that is, attorneys who go into detention facilities and represent pro bono people in detention, and we found that about 98% of their clients who were released without electronic ankle shackles appeared to their check-ins and to their court [appointments] as they were receiving support and legal representation,” Cynthia Marlene Galaz, a senior policy associate with Freedom for Immigrants, told me in a phone interview.

There is, indeed, a humane alternative to detention for undocumented immigrants. But it’s not “e-carceration”; rather, it’s the same combination of things that usually keeps most people on the right side of the law: physical and mental health care, job opportunities, help with navigating legal matters, and kindness.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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