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Criminal Justice

Prisons created the blueprint for reproductive violence in immigrant detention

Within the “crimmigration” system, the two forces work hand in hand to harm migrant women.
Tina Vasquez September 3rd, 2020
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(Photo Credit: Ponomariova_Maria via iStock)

This story is part of Prism’s series on incarceration as gendered violence. Read the rest of the series here.

The single most overwhelming response I’ve ever received to reporting was last year when I published a three-part series about the U.S. Marshals Services’ (USMS) role in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which funneled pregnant migrants into the federal law enforcement agency's custody, triggering a series of reproductive injustices that included shackling, the denial of prenatal care, and the separation of mothers from their newborns. I received dozens of messages, fielded media requests like never before, and members of Congress even called for an investigation. Amid all the outrage, I can’t recall anyone making the connection that these same atrocities play out every day in prisons nationwide.

When I began my investigation into reproductive injustices at the border, I interviewed migrants who’d given birth in custody. It took me months to realize that when these new mothers referred to “ICE” or “immigration” as the perpetrators of the abuse and negligence they experienced, they were talking about the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the U.S. As pregnant migrants being prosecuted, they were funneled through so many types of prisons and law enforcement agencies, they didn’t always know whose custody they were in. What they did know was that the way they were treated was inhumane and it endangered their lives.

At the time, I’d never before reported on USMS. In an effort to better understand the conditions that migrant women faced in custody, I simply turned to existing reporting about the mistreatment of U.S. citizen women in Marshals custody. More broadly, I also explored how the same injustices I was reporting on were commonplace in the carceral system, including the the shackling of pregnant people, a dangerous lack of prenatal care in prisons, and the family separation that is baked into the prison industrial complex and triggered every time any one of the 150,000 pregnant people funneled into the system each year gives birth. 

In fact, the carceral system seemed in many ways to be the blueprint for the immigrant detention system. As prison abolitionist and organizer Mariame Kaba wrote, “From forced sterilization to family separation, the carceral state itself is an act of reproductive violence.” The primary target of this violence is Black women, as explained by organizer Briana Perry in her piece for Prism.

“[S]ince the first women’s prison opened in the U.S. in 1873, incarcerated women—and particularly Black women—have experienced a multitude of sexual and reproductive abuses,” Perry wrote, noting that 80% of the women who are jailed each year are mothers. “This treatment of incarcerated Black women across the country, especially in the South ... is yet another way to continue to neglect Black women and strip them of their human rights and agency.”

Increasingly, the criminal justice system and the immigrant detention system are one-in-the-same, often referred to as “crimmigation,” a term coined in 2006 by legal scholar Juliet Stumpf describing the intersection of criminal law and immigration law. Not only can local law enforcement agencies enter into agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but there are a myriad of existing laws even in so-called sanctuary cities that funnel undocumented immigrants into the detention system. In New York City, for example, you can end up in ICE custody for jumping a turnstile.

The targets of crimmigation are overwhelmingly Black immigrant communities, and as the Trump administration inches the U.S. even closer toward the outright criminalization of asylum, Black asylum-seeking families are also in the crosshairs. As Prism recently reported, parents detained alongside their young children in family detention centers are being forced to decide between indefinite detention with their toddlers in facilities where a deadly virus is spreading, and the potential termination of their parental rights if their child is released from custody without them. These families are overwhelmingly Haitian.

Since at least the1880s, the U.S. has dehumanized immigrants and turned them into the “other” by referring to them as aliens and creating systems for social control based on the racist and xenophobic perception that they are inherently violent. The template for all of this is the nation’s treatment of African Americans going back 400 years. African American communities in the U.S. arguably still do not have full citizenship, and they continue to be the country’s ultimate “other,” evidenced most recently by Vice President Mike Pence’s freudian slip in which he differentiated between “American people” and their “African American neighbors.”  

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a professor of law at the University of Denver and an immigration lawyer who runs the blog Crimmigration.com, told Prism that prisons and policing are the symptom of the nation’s generations-long commitment to “marking some people as undesirable and doing with them as others wish.”

“In the United States, we use prisons and police to stigmatize and control people tarred as unfit for freedom. Like migrants and people of color, women have often been central to identifying some people as unfit for full participation in our experiment in self-governance,” the author of Migrating to Prison said. “When we map multiple identities onto one another to focus on female migrants of color, we find not that they have often been targets of harsh immigration laws, but that, back in 1875 when the Page Act was enacted, they became the very first targets of federal immigration laws.”

In recent months, there have been calls to abolish the police and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which use our tax dollars to brutalize communities of color while ignoring the very real rise of white supremacist terrorism targeting Black and Latinx communities. I have long argued that it is imperative that we view immigration as a reproductive justice issue, and that understanding was only developed because of the work of Black reproductive justice advocates across the South who have fought back against the specific ways the carceral system wages war on the bodily autonomy of Black women.

Cuauhtémoc García Hernández says it’s important to understand now more than ever that criminal incarceration and immigrant detention are not two different systems, but rather two aspects of the same policing and legal system that stigmatizes, patrols, and punishes people of color.

“Because criminal incarceration and immigrant detention stem from the same vilification of people of color, we should expect that the indignities of one confinement venue will appear in the other,” Cuauhtémoc García Hernández said. “From uncontrollable cops to jailhouse indignities, that’s exactly what women experience when they enter the nation’s prisons no matter who pays the guards’ wages.”


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