Robert M. Morgenthau on Immigration Injustice

images-2Without question, I considered Robert M. Morgenthau (District Attorney for New York, borough of Manhattan, from 1975 to 2009) the great political figure of New York City at the end of the twentieth century for his fearless battle against white-collar crime. He was a hero above the mundane vicissitudes of ordinary life. I was surprised then to find out that his wife, Lucinda Franks, had written the intimate story of their unusual marriage, Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me.  When he was 57 and a widower with five children, she was 26 and a successful reporter/writer who perceived his greatness. She persisted, they married and, according to her, it has been and remains an authentic love story.

I was surprised again when I opened a recent Nation and found an essay by Morgenthau, now 95 years old and still crusading against injustice (and pictured at right). In “Our Detained Masses: It’s time to end the immigrant detention quota” he describes dire circumstances experienced by immigrants due to a law, passed by Congress, of which the public is unaware:

On any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] keeps at least 34,000 immigrants locked up while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court. Many of these detainees are incarcerated not because they are dangerous or likely to skip their court dates, but because ICE must meet an arbitrary quota set by Congress. This quota, which is often referred to as the “detention-bed mandate,” is a disgrace and should be eliminated.

The quota is written into the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Congress requires the agency to “maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds” at any given time. . . The quota . . . appears yet again in the 2015 appropriations bill currently pending in the House of Representatives.

Morgenthau writes that the law is so excessive that immigration authorities argue against it. He points out that the quota remains because for-profit prisons contain more than half of the detainees and it has become a big business perpetuated by enormous funds used for lobbying. Private companies are paid per bed and have no incentive to lower the number of detained immigrants.

It costs a staggering $2 billion a year to incarcerate enough people to satisfy the quota—a figure that represents approximately 40 percent of ICE’s $5.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2014. . . . [T]he cost of the quota is equal to the entire annual budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

According to Morgenthau, detention does not reduce the number of people who flee their countries for a better life. And the money could be better spent on improving the economy and quality of life in immigrants’ own countries.

Indeed, a significant portion of the $3.7 billion that President Obama recently requested for detention facilities and border police to counter the flow of unaccompanied children from Central America—as well as some of the $2 billion that goes to detain immigrants—could be used more intelligently on resources to support and improve life in struggling countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

In spite of Morgenthau’s efforts to raise awareness of the quota, it remains little known and has avoided public outrage. Until the quota is eliminated, the former district attorney suggests radical actions be taken against the quota.

Until Congress ends the detainee quota, law enforcement should simply ignore it. There are serious doubts about the legality and constitutionality of forcing ICE to detail 34,000 people irrespective of whether the agency believes that it can justify each detention. All three branches of government are responsible for interpreting and upholding the Constitution, including the executive branch. . . . DHS [Department of Homeland Security] officials, lawyers and immigration judges have both the legal and moral obligation to avoid enforcing the detainee quota.

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate

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