Detention is an Issue in State Elections, Not Immigration Court

In one of his campaign ads, Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone promises to end sanctuary cities in Louisiana, “end taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants,” and he says he “supports President Trump’s wall 110 percent.” These claims represent Rispone signaling that he aligns himself with Trump because the state doesn’t have jurisdiction in them. What happens in New Orleans immigration court is similarly determined in Washington, D.C. and not Baton Rouge because for the most part, immigration is a federal matter. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 codified immigration as a federal issue, and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 reiterated it while stating among other things that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for welfare—a Rispone plank that is already law. 

That hasn’t stopped states and communities from trying to flex their muscles where immigration is concerned. Some communities have tried to pass laws that required renters to show proof of immigration status, or have law enforcement officials check immigration status when they question a suspect. These efforts have been declared unconstitutional in the past, or they remain under review.  

Some confusion is understandable because when we go to immigration court representing a client, we may be discussing events that took place in New Orleans or Louisiana, which makes the matter seem local. And, the current administration has worked to create the impression that we’re all threatened by undocumented immigration, even though studies show that impact is far from equal. As of 2017, six states accounted for 57 percent of the undocumented immigrant population—California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. From 2007 to 2017, the undocumented population declined in 12 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Oregon—and increased in five—Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Immigration law falls under federal jurisdiction, but states can play a role in shaping it, so these are immigration questions you can ask local candidates:

  • - Where you do stand on detaining undocumented immigrants? - The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) changed the way they dealt with asylum seekers under the current administration and currently detain them all pending court appearances, which has caused the overcrowding that we’ve heard about on the news. To address that growing population, DHS and ICE now pay detention facilities that are overseen by the states to house detainees and unaccompanied minors. Louisiana now has 12 detention facilities with a growing detainee population, which has made it a big business. According to the Associated Press’ Nomaan Merchant, “California and Illinois have banned private immigration jails altogether, and even in conservative Texas, the Republican-led government in Williamson County voted to end ICE detention at a 500-bed jail,” but not Louisiana, so we should ask candidates where they stand on for-profit prisons holding detainees. 
  • - Where do you stand on their treatment of detainees? - There have been documented cases of facilities that treat them simply as prisoners with unsatisfactory conditions, few legal assistance options, and minimal oversight, but there have also been facilities that recognize that many of these detainees are not criminals but people fleeing catastrophic situations who have done nothing to merit being treated poorly. We can ask candidates how they approach the humane treatment of detainees.
  • - Where do you stand on oversight of the treatment of detainees? - Some facilities have been resistant to any oversight, even from legislators. Without oversight, policies can be in place to provide for humane treatment of detainees, but there’s no way to be sure they’re actually getting it. Will candidates go so far as make someone in their administration responsible for ensuring that policies and procedures are followed?
  • - Are they willing to work with stakeholders on detention facility oversight? - Oversight is a big job, and many non-profits with interests in education, health care, legal assistance and more want to know what is going on in facilities and how they can help detainees get their needs met. Are candidates willing to work with groups that already have expertise in these areas to make sure detainees get the most humane treatment possible. 

 If immigration law is going to be part of the governor’s race, we need to think about the ways immigration will actually affect Louisiana. Some detainees will end up in front of a judge in New Orleans immigration court, but many more will be shipped to another jurisdiction for hearings. A focus on walls and sanctuary cities is political grandstanding; a focus on the for-profit detention system in Louisiana is far more productive and relevant because Louisianans can do something about it. 

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