The Deterrence Strategy of Homeland Security: Imprisonment as Immigration Control

Source: Americas Program 

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refers to its new deterrence strategy, the agency is not talking about nuclear arsenals, missile defense, or border security. For DHS, deterrence is a strategy of immigration control that relies on what U.S. law enforcement does best: imprisonment.

The United States has more people in jail—2.3 million—than any other nation. Although the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, it holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. One of every 100 adults in the "land of the free" is locked up.

Immigrants are the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. prison population. The DHS agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains 300,000 immigrants annually, with some 32,000 immigrants in ICE detention centers on any given day. ICE’s budget for its Detention and Removal Operations has jumped from $959 million in 2004 to $2.3 billion today.

The rise in the number of immigrants detained or incarcerated by the federal government for immigration-related offenses dates back to the mid-1990s when Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

The combined effect of the two acts was to dramatically expand the definition of a "criminal alien" to include immigrants—legal and illegal—who falsify their identity documents and Social Security numbers, or who have been convicted of any misdemeanor or crime, as minor as shoplifting or disturbing the peace.

An immigrant who does not appear at a scheduled immigration hearing is labeled a "fugitive alien" and is subject to immediate detention and deportation, or, as ICE’s Homeland Security deterrence strategy increasingly kicks in, possibly sentencing, imprisonment, and then "removal."

Homeland Security Locks Up Immigrants

It wasn’t until after Sept. 11 with the creation of DHS in March 2003, however, that the federal government launched a campaign to criminalize immigrants for offenses previously deemed administrative violations. Similarly, the hunt for "fugitive aliens" began in earnest only after the Bush administration established Homeland Security.

DHS says its "main priority is to prevent terrorist attacks against the nation and to protect our nation from dangerous people." Since 2003, budget allocations for immigration control have been rising at an annual rate that’s more than double that of the department as a whole. DHS is unable to make a case that its ongoing immigration crackdown has netted terrorists or people that threaten the nation’s security.

The number of immigrants crossing illegally into the United States is declining, but the number of immigrants that are detained or incarcerated continues to climb. Deportations—what DHS now calls "removals"—rose from 178,657 in 2005 to 282,548 in 2007—an increase of nearly 60% in two years. Meanwhile, the number of immigrants arrested by the Border Patrol dropped from 1.07 million in 2006 to 859,000 last year.

In the past, most of those captured by the Border Patrol were either quickly returned to the other side of the border (Mexicans) or released with an order to appear later for an immigration hearing (non-Mexicans).

Although ICE has largely continued the traditional practice of expedited removal for Mexicans captured, it has stopped its "catch and release" practice for OTMs (their term for "other than Mexicans") and instituted a "catch and detain" procedure. In a pilot project called Operation Streamline, ICE is also now detaining both Mexicans and OTMs in the Yuma, Laredo, and Del Rio sectors of the border and prosecuting and jailing them for illegal entry.

As this practice extends to other border sectors such as Tucson, the federal courts are being flooded with immigration cases, overwhelming judges and attorneys and diverting the entire law enforcement and judicial sectors from real threats to public safety.

While other sectors of the building industry are slumping, prison construction is booming, fueled largely by the demand for more prison beds for immigrants.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly in Texas, prisons are a growth industry. The border town of Del Rio has become a major destination for immigrants. The county’s Val Verde Correctional Facility, which is owned and run by GEO Group, had only 180 beds eight years ago. Today, after undergoing its second 600-bed expansion, the maximum-security jail can fit 1,425 prisoners.

It’s not as if the county is experiencing a crime wave. The non-immigrant population at the jail has stayed the same—about 70-80 a day. But the number of those behind bars for immigration violations has fueled the prison expansion.

The increased number of immigrants in detention centers, jails, and prisons around the country is the result of a phalanx of new Homeland Security initiatives that are criminalizing immigration.

Through one of its latest criminal initiatives, "Secure Communities: A Comprehensive Plan to Identify and Remove Criminal Aliens," ICE says it intends to "maximize cost effectiveness and long-term success through deterrence and reduced recidivism." Adopting the language of the penal system, ICE calls it recidivism when an immigrant attempts to cross illegally after having been "removed" once.

Other ICE measures that target immigrants include Operation Secure Streets, Community Shield, and Operation CrossCheck, among a cascading array of new initiatives aimed at identifying immigrants through increased cooperation with local law enforcement officials. Its 75 Fugitive Operation Teams arrested more than 30,000 immigrants in 2007—nearly double the number captured in raids in 2006.

Immigration restrictionists have long demanded that the federal government increase its raids in the country’s interior—meaning beyond the borderlands. ICE is now complying, not only with its fugitive hunts but also with increased "workplace enforcement operations." As part of the new emphasis on criminalizing immigrants, ICE and the Justice Department now refer to workplace raids as "criminal workplace enforcement operations," since the arrested workers are no longer just detained and deported but charged with "aggravated felonies" such as falsifying a Social Security number to obtain employment.

Since the mid-1990s the federal government has had the authority to elevate low-level violations to aggravated felonies. It wasn’t until the immigration crackdown heated up in 2005 that the criminalization of immigration took hold.

The DRO Vision—"Removing All Removable Aliens"

From the start DHS adopted military terminology—security, surges, protection, operations, deterrence, etc.—for its immigration initiatives and strategies. As part of the department’s strategic plan, the newly created Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) set forth its Operation Endgame strategy. DRO is component of ICE.

The DRO strategic plan "sets in motion a cohesive enforcement program with a 10-year time horizon that will build the capacity to "remove all removable aliens," eliminate the backlog of unexecuted final order removal cases, and realize its vision."

In a June 23, 2003 memorandum, DRO director Anthony Tangemann explained that "DRO provides the endgame to immigration enforcement," namely the deportation of illegal immigrants. "This is also the essence of our mission statement and the ‘golden measure’ to our successes."

The Operation Endgame strategy statement also calls for more funding, including for the construction of new detention facilities and higher security jails for its rising number of "criminal" immigrants. Using the example of the El Paso detention center, the statement noted that "over the last five years, our population has increased by 136% [in the El Paso center], and the classification of our population has gone from primarily noncriminal to a population of over 65% criminal."

Operation Endgame sees the detention and removal of aliens as a fundamental component of a national security strategy: "Moving toward a 100% rate of removal for all removable aliens allows ICE to provide the level of immigration enforcement necessary to keep America secure."

Beyond the Endgame

Since 2003, when Homeland Security launched Operation Endgame, DHS has moved beyond the endgame of "removing all removable aliens." It has adopted a deterrence strategy of criminalizing and imprisoning immigrants as a message to others. The program aims to deter immigrants from overstaying their visas or attempting to cross into the United States without the proper documents.

As ICE explains, it is committed to "detain and remove criminal and other deportable aliens [as] part of the strategy to deter illegal immigration and protect public safety." Despite these statements, community crime statistics show little or no correlation between immigrant populations and threats to public safety.

Immigrants arrested as part of Operation Streamline are subject to sentences that range from 15 to 180 days, depending on the severity of their immigration violation. Immigrants who are arrested after having already been "removed" once are sentenced to two years in prison.

Basically the idea is to use the plight of imprisoned immigrants to signal their communities in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, or wherever poor people look to America as the land of opportunity that the risks of crossing into the United States far outweigh any possible benefits. The international media relay the images meant to make prospective immigrants think twice—men and women being arrested, hauled off with their hands and feet shackled, thrown in prison, and finally deported.

The massive arrests of the largely Guatemalan workforce at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant in northeastern Iowa in mid-May highlighted the new ways of immigration enforcement in America. The falsely documented workers in the meatpacking plant—most of whom earned $7.50 or less an hour—were rounded up and taken from the slaughterhouse in handcuffs. At least 270 were charged and convicted in an expedited judicial process criticized by civil liberties organizations as a violation of due process for "aggravated felonies" such as using a fraudulent ID. Most plea-bargained for sentences of five months behind bars followed by immediate deportation.

"This has an unbelievable deterrent effect," says Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "When people who cross the border illegally are brought to face the reality that they were committing a crime, even if it’s just a misdemeanor, that has a huge impact on their willingness to try again."

It does appear that the deterrence strategy is working, measured by increased "removals" and decreased illegal immigration across the southern border. But in the process, the government is moving yet further away from enacting an immigration policy that is just and sustainable.

Instead it is compounding the problems of the already badly flawed immigration system. Federal courts are clogged with immigration cases, human rights and civil liberties abuses are rising, and tens of thousands of families are being torn apart.

Sadly, America’s immigration policy has created a new system of crime and punishment.

Tom Barry is a senior analyst with the Americas Policy Program ( of the Center for International Policy.