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“Detained and Deported”: Questions about America’s Immigration Dragnet

A Q&A with Margaret Regan

Margaret Regan
Photo credit: Jay Rochlin

Journalist and author Margaret Regan spoke on a panel about human rights as it relates to immigration policy with author Luis Alberto Urrea and attorney Theresa Duncan at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books, held on March 12-13 on the campus of the University of Arizona. After the panel, C-SPAN/BookTV conducted an interview and call-in session with her specifically about her book Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, now available in paperback. You can click here to watch the panel discussion, and here for the full interview and call-in session. What follows below is a collection of highlight questions from C-SPAN and listeners who called in.

One of the things you cover in Detained and Deported is the for-profit prison industry. What is that?

Starting in the 1980s, we began to have a policy of detaining immigrants. We didn’t really have detention centers ever since we shut down Ellis Island and Angel Island in the 1950s. 1980s policy changed. We were going to do detention centers. So, what do you do? You suddenly start needing prisons. You go to the private sector because they’re agile, they can do things. Corrections Corporation of America began around 1983. Their first project was an immigration detention center in Houston, Texas. And they quickly moved into the regular prison sector also. So they are a for-profit corporation.

There’s a difference between detention centers run by them and detention centers run by the federal government. We only have eleven out of 250 detention centers in the United States run by the federal government, and those are much more humane and better run, in my view, than those run by private prisons. Because the more money they spend on their prisons, the less profit they make for their shareholders.

Give us a picture of what the prison industry is like here in the Tucson-Nogales area.

Sixty miles north of Tucson, we have a whole complex of prisons that are owned and run by the Corrections Corporation of America. The big one I’m interested in is the Eloy Detention Center. That’s the third largest immigration detention center in the United States and the only one in Arizona that holds women. Fifteen- or sixteen-hundred people are there on a typical day. They told me it used to be a regular prison and it was renovated to become a detention center, but you would be very hard pressed to see the difference.

It’s very important to emphasize that when immigrants are in detention, they’re not being held on criminal charges. They’re being held only to guarantee their presence at upcoming deportation hearings. They’re not supposed to be treated like prisoners being punished, and yet they are. Their lives are highly regulated, they have regular lockdowns. Corrections Corporation of America uses solitary confinement as punishment. Women there complain very much about the poor medical care that they get. And Eloy, unfortunately, has the highest suicide rate of any of the detention centers in the United States.  

Does the prison corporation train the guards and the personnel at Eloy to treat the children badly or do they recruit that kind of person to begin with?

Detained and DeportedWell, to be clear, there are no children being held in the Eloy Detention Center. Although we do have two family detention centers in Texas now where there are children. When I wrote about attending Visiting Day at the Eloy Detention Center, the guards were very harsh with the children coming to visit their parents. I don’t think anybody trains them to be mean to the children. As I wrote in my book, I think that guards in that situation are working in a fairly brutal environment, and sometimes they become brutalized themselves.

Kids have to wait a long time to see their mom or their dad. I saw in one instance a little boy swinging on a gate in the waiting room, and a guard really yelled at him. And I never saw anybody say anything like, “Oh, this is a happy occasion, children getting to see mom and dad.” I imagine that prison culture, as a rule, tends in that direction toward unkindness—as a nice way of putting it.

Why are we spending so much on illegal immigration and pushing immigrants into the school system? They’re way behind and American kids lose out. Why can’t immigrants go back to their own countries and fight for their own rights instead of making us taxpayers have to pay for everything like housing? Don’t you think that takes away from American families?

Actually, it’s not factual that the American taxpayers are paying for all kinds of health-care and welfare treatments for undocumented immigrants. These are people who live in the shadows. They’re not even entitled to health care under Obamacare; that was one of the important points. And as far as educating the children is concerned, the way we pay for education is through our real estate taxes. Every immigrant living in the United States is paying taxes either via the rent that they’re paying and the landlord transfers that to taxes, or they’re paying taxes on a house they might own. It’s not true that they’re not contributing to the education of their own children.

Are undocumented illegal immigrants in the education system here in Tucson and what effect does that have?

We had a Supreme Court decision around 1983 that said we do not challenge children who come to the schoolhouse door and ask for their identities. And good for us as a people! We educate kids who are here in the United States across the board. We do not terrorize people into not coming to the schoolhouse, and I think that’s very good. The Supreme Court decision has been established law for thirty years now.

In Tucson, we’re very eager to have more children come to the school because our numbers are declining. The schools are working very hard to get more kids to come. Immigrant children are like any other children. I’m not sure what the issue is. They learn English very quickly when they come here. A little girl who was my daughter’s best friend in first grade and Kindergarten came knowing only Spanish, and she was a whip-smart child. She learned English right away and turned out to be one of the best students. It’s just like any population of kids: you’re going to have kids who are the bright learners and the kids who aren’t. I was glad to have my children growing up with Spanish-speakers and learning Spanish themselves.  

Why do you think the message that illegal immigrants are taking jobs and straining our systems resonates with so many people?

I think these are really hard times for people. Wages have stagnated for years. I think this is a big issue in the current presidential campaign. People are frustrated. People are working and working and don’t get raises, and they’re looking to understand why.

If you’ve seen the movie The Big Short, that’s a very entertaining and informative movie about the Wall Street bankers making tons of money on bad loans. Finally, the whole economy collapses, and the movie documents it pretty well. Then the narrator says, “As soon as this happens, Wall Street collapses.” People are losing their jobs. People’s homes are going into foreclosure. What do you start hearing? “This is the fault of the immigrants. This is the fault of the school teachers making too much money. This is fault of the public unions.” And you scapegoat people at the bottom of the barrel, and as we all know, only one Wall Street banker was prosecuted. People are frustrated, and in hard times, look to find answers. Unfortunately, that’s happened in Arizona. Arizona was one of the big foreclosure states, and the anti-immigration sentiment grew dramatically after that and politicians use that to get elected.


About the Author 

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Margaret Regan is the author of two award-winning books: Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, a 2015 Southwest Book of the Year; and  The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A longtime writer for the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national awards for her immigration reporting, including the 2016 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lectureship at Roosevelt University, Chicago. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.