Asylum seekers need compassion, not surveillance

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When President Biden released his budget on April 9, a little-known part of it hit very close to home for me. I recently accompanied two asylum seekers as they navigated our inhumane immigration system. I hosted them in my small, two-bedroom condo and learned about the torture they were fleeing. They would face certain death if deported. As I walked with them, they were placed into an “Alternatives to Detention” (ATD) program. That dehumanizing, punitive program is slated for an increase under President Biden’s proposed 2021 budget.

I am all too familiar with what “Alternatives to Detention” really looks like. BI Incorporated, the for-profit corporation running the ATD program, is headquartered in my backyard here in Boulder County. BI is a wholly owned subsidiary of the GEO Group, one of the country’s largest and most notorious private prison companies, and specializes in electronic monitoring and GPS tracking systems. It has been profiting from people’s pain and our tax dollars since 2004, when it received the sole contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to run the ATD Intensive Supervision Appearance Program. It has since received four contracts for this program, which is run nationwide. The Boulder Daily Camera reported that as of 2018, BI had received half a billion tax dollars for this program.

These ATD programs are unnecessary and immoral. Ethical, effective and cheaper not-for-profit community-based models already exist, keep us all safe and respect people’s human rights. These models could quickly scale up if the Biden administration redirected resources toward them. Community-based models support integration into community and attendance at complex legal proceedings. Biden could also redirect resources in the foreign policy realm toward addressing the root causes of migration instead of investing in harmful ATD programs.

I know community-based programs work because I decided to sponsor two trans women who were going through the immigration system. I did this because it was the moral thing to do, the same as my ancestors did for anyone fleeing war or terror. I watched as my community came forward to help two vulnerable immigrants find clothing, medical care, mental health care, legal assistance, English classes, food and ultimately work and a supportive community. With support, both women have made it through the intimidating, abusive and frightening system to the other side. Now they are both working and enjoying life with their community in Denver, awaiting their court dates. The data shows that 92% of people in community-based programs — without surveillance or threats — show up for their court dates, just like my two friends. 

ATD programs are a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. Not only are they an unnecessary waste of our tax dollars, but they cause real harm. Within the ATD program run by BI, immigrants are subject to constant surveillance and limited mobility, threatened with deportation, bullied by BI staff, interrogated on personal information without lawyers present and provided with incorrect information about the legal system and their rights. BI case managers made it clear that they are in complete control over our friends’ lives — when/if they get their work permits, when they get their ankle bracelets removed and whether or not they get deported. BI staff use their supposed authority to exert power and control over immigrants.

When I first became aware of BI’s ATD and started looking into this, I asked myself why do we do this to people who are coming here, fleeing violence in their own countries and just seeking safety? Now I understand that the cruelty is the point.

In 1994 the U.S. knowingly constructed a border wall meant to funnel people into the deadly desert as a deterrent. As a result, thousands have perished. Each year administrations from both parties invest more and more money in policies that are now widely viewed and accepted as a failure to deter migration. Yet we still pursue these dehumanizing and deadly policies, demonstrating our nation’s disregard and racist view that the value of your life is dependent on where you are born and the color of your skin. ATD has evolved into one of the final steps of our racist asylum and migration system, subjecting our long-term neighbors and recently arrived siblings to one more humiliation. 

My friends’ success came in spite of the ATD constraints placed on them by BI staff members. The BI ATD program grew out of the worst aspects of our criminal legal system and is a clear example of a capitalist profit model run amuck. We have an opportunity under the Biden administration to break the cycle of racist and inhumane treatment of immigrants. We have an opportunity to show the world that our values are to treat each person with dignity and care and respect. We have an opportunity to demonstrate kindness and compassion. Let’s get this right and reinvest our tax dollars into community-based, not-for-profit supports and addressing the root causes of migration.

Brian Fauver is a lifelong Colorado resident and is part of the Colorado network of asylum hosts, and volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee to help trans folks in detention in Aurora.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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