“I am home. God brought me home.”
After seven years in custody, held at the mercy of policemen and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Paulino Ruiz embraced his family for the first time on July 16. His release was a triumph for his family and the supporters who have been fighting relentlessly for his liberation. When Ruiz arrived at the airport, he was met with tears and celebration.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” he said later.
“When they finally released me, I was at a loss for words."
At age three, Ruiz and his brother immigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, to reunite with the rest of his family in the United States. He gained permanent legal resident status in 1996 and lived in Oregon with his parents and four siblings. Ruiz lived a fairly normal life.
But one night when he was 21, Ruiz drank too much and stole cigarettes from a convenience store. Upon his arrest, he was charged with robbery, had his residency revoked, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
After completing his sentence, he was shipped to the Northwest Detention Center in shackles.
“They told me I had no rights. I couldn’t see a judge. The only thing they told me was that I was worthless, and would be deported,” he remembered.
While Ruiz waited anxiously for his case to be processed, he was detained indefinitely in degrading conditions. In the two years he was detained — and transferred between multiple immigrant detention centers — he experienced countless human rights violations.
“It’s hard to describe what went on without being a bit embarrassed,” he said.
“It was disgusting. There were feces everywhere. They treated us like animals.”
To protest the inhumane conditions, Ruiz organized the Colectivo de Detenidos, an activist group made up of fellow detainees. In the spring of 2014, the activists staged a hunger strike that received national attention. As a key leader of the group, Ruiz faced retaliation from the authorities.
“They put me in solitary confinement for 30 days. After that, they sent me to a different detention center where I had no access to my lawyer and couldn’t communicate with anyone about my case,” he said.
Unfortunately, Ruiz’s experience is not uncommon. Every year, U.S. authorities hold over 400,000 suspected immigration violators in 250 jails and detention centers across the nation . Anyone suspected of violating immigration law — including permanent U.S. residents, asylum seekers, pregnant women, victims of torture and children — are subject to mandatory detention without trial and are often held indefinitely for weeks, months, or even years. Ruiz’s story is a testament to the brokenness of the immigrant detention industry.
Although the U.S. government has the right to exercise authority over its borders, it also has legal and moral obligations to protect the human rights of immigrants. From a Christian ethics perspective, it is our obligation to welcome the stranger, provide sanctuary to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and work towards the liberation of all. Mandatory immigrant detention not only deprives people of their dignity — it is also illegal, ineffective, and inhumane.
It is only right that we mobilize against such a system.
Though current rhetoric surrounding the discussion on immigration paints undocumented immigrants as free-loading criminals, it is the immigrant detention system itself that is breaking the law. Currently, men, women, and children are taken into custody to ensure they attend their case proceedings — not because they pose a threat to society or are serving a sentence.
With no trial and no conviction, detainees sit idly in squalid jails and detention centers while their cases sludge through government bureaucracy. For Ruiz and many others, this process stretches on without an end in sight. Under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United States’ current system of mandatory and indefinite detainment is prohibited.
Immigrant detention is also ineffective. There are alternatives to detention that operate at a 91 percent compliance rate and cost as little as seven cents per person per day. But the Department of Homeland Security spent almost $2 billion of taxpayer money last year instead to keep detention centers operating.
Immigrant detention squanders taxpayer money and does little to deter future migration. Research has shown that when countries increase the severity of detention systems, rates of unauthorized migration do not falter — and in some cases, migration rates rise. Unsurprisingly, illegally incarcerating one group of immigrants in the U.S. does not affect the behavior of other potential immigrants thousands of miles away, many of whom flee their home countries to escape violence and persecution.
While the privately owned detention centers profit from this degenerate and wasteful system, unauthorized immigrants are subjected to immeasurable suffering. As Ruiz and the Colectivo de Detenidos testified, the conditions of detention are humiliating and demeaning. Detainees are served nearly inedible food in filthy facilities crawling with disease and infection. Access to outdoor recreation time and fresh air is extremely limited and most medical and psychological problems go untreated.
Since 2003, 132 individuals have died in immigrant detention, according to official ICE reports.
Detainees also face immense barriers in communicating with the outside world. As experienced by Ruiz, frequent transfers between facilities and unnecessary solitary confinement are often used to weaken support systems and bar detainees from accessing legal counsel. Isolated from their communities and imprisoned in deplorable conditions, detainees encounter immeasurable mental health repercussions.
From racist portrayals in the media to politicians' xenophobic fear-mongering, it is not hard to understand how many Americans have come to rationalize the illegal incarceration of thousands of immigrants. But for people like Ruiz and thousands of others, immigrant detention must come to an end.
A glimmer of hope appeared in July when a federal judge ruled against family detention centers that hold women, children, and pregnant mothers in deplorable conditions. But the most recent court filing by the Department of Justice makes it clear that the fight to end immigrant detention will not be won easily. Despite Judge Gee’s ruling, the current administration insists that detention is necessary to maintain security at the borders.
Security for whom? Privately owned companies are making money off of the criminalization of undocumented immigrants, while sisters and brothers and parents and children — who pose no risk to society — are being held in inhumane conditions. Families are being shattered, children traumatized, and communities torn apart.
Lacking both legal and moral authority, it is time for the United States to stop supporting this corrupt and perverse industry. While it may seem like a daunting feat to dismantle this complex system, Ruiz reminds us that together, with the help of some heavenly hosts, justice is achievable.
“It is a miracle that I am free,” he said.
“Now I know nothing is impossible. It may be impossible for us, but nothing is impossible for God.”