Abolish Migrant Prisons: A Manifesto

The new series Migrant Futures is aimed at pushing forward our thinking and action about immigration and borders. Read series curators Geraldo Cadava, A. Naomi Paik, and Catherine S. Ramírez’s introduction here.
So long as the state can criminalize movement and eliminate groups deemed undesirable, no one is free.

Free Movement

When people dare to cross US borders seeking safety and a better life, many are captured, caged, and banished. They are eliminated. Incarcerating migrants for lengthy periods is cruel and inhumane, and too often it leads to death while they are in custody. In the 19th century, activists demanded the abolition of slavery. Today we declare that immigrant detention, and the deportation machine it feeds, must be stopped.

The United States has created the world’s largest immigrant-detention system, incarcerating more than half a million migrants every year. The wailing cries of toddlers torn from their parents and images of migrants crowded into chain-link cages awaken our moral indignation. Yet they are not the first. For more than 130 years, migrants have been locked up and brutalized by a monstrous system. The United States continues to send people back into the hands of police, soldiers, drug cartels, and gangs who are responsible for unspeakable violence.

The right to move (or to stay home) and to live in dignity free from state violence has been enshrined in Western thought for thousands of years: from Plato to the Declaration of the Rights of Man (issued by France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789) to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948). This basic right to move is the foundation of freedom and liberty.

So long as the state can criminalize movement and eliminate groups deemed undesirable, no one is free. Our freedom requires the abolition of prisons and the decriminalization of movement.


Freedom for Children, Freedom for All

When the Trump administration began separating migrant children from their families and placing children in detention in 2017, it roused the conscience of many Americans, sparking righteous indignation and a successful movement to end the policy. Trump’s subsequent electoral defeat and promises by his successor, Joe Biden, to reverse some of Trump’s especially cruel policies toward migrants allowed us to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

But there has been no dramatic break with long-standing bipartisan policies that criminalize immigrants. Instead, detention centers on the border—packed full of migrant children—are expanding. When these children cry for their mothers, do they know the difference between being locked up by an anti-immigrant Republican or a pro-immigrant Democrat?

We must tell the truth. Trump’s cruelty toward migrants was no aberration. And how Biden treats unauthorized migrants actually maintains policies that stretch back more than a century. These include increasingly criminalizing unauthorized migrants, militarizing the border, and deploying police and prisons against mostly Brown and Black migrants. Generations of migrant children and adults, especially from the Caribbean and Latin America, have been arrested, incarcerated, and deported for the “crime” of being born in a foreign land and for having dark skin.

The caging of migrant children is what pricked the national conscience. But it is the much longer-running racist attacks on migrants and US-born communities of color that have galvanized the movement to abolish prisons and decriminalize migration.


Outsourcing Oppression

The United States enforces its oppressive immigration policies cruelly. But it does not do so alone.

Beginning in the late 19th century, for example, the United States has pressured neighboring countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, to exclude Chinese laborers. While Mexico resisted for some time, by the 1920s all three countries had enacted some form of Chinese exclusion.

In the last two decades, the United States has demanded that Mexico do the United States’ dirty work: detaining and deporting millions of Central Americans before they reach the US border. The United States has pumped more than $3.3 billion into Mexico through the Mérida Initiative (a US security-assistance program) since 2007, more than $200 million of which was used from 2014 to 2018 specifically to finance Mexican mercenaries who detain and deport Central Americans at Mexico’s southern border.1 From 2002 to 2017, Mexico arrested, detained, and deported more than 1.9 million Central Americans from the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). This represents 800,000 more people than the United States deported during the same period.2 US border enforcement has always been and remains transnational.

Even now, President Biden is expanding the tentacles of US immigration enforcement southward to Guatemala and Honduras, pressuring these countries to deploy thousands of police and soldiers to prevent migrant caravans from crossing their borders. Honduras defense secretary Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelaya said his country would send troops “in response to this request that comes from the great nation to the north [i.e., the United States] to be able to help on the issue of immigration.”3

The great puppet master in the north snaps his fingers, and the politicians and generals in the south obey. And who can blame them? They depend on the “great nation to the north” to keep the military aid and foreign capital flowing.


Detention in a Time of COVID

Public health emergencies have long been used as excuses to allow the United States to stop migration and lock up immigrants. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States forced Mexicans in South Texas into quarantines after outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox, even temporarily cutting rail and mail traffic between border towns. In New York City in 1907, hysteria over typhoid fever prompted authorities to incarcerate Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant cook referred to as “Typhoid Mary,” for more than 20 years. More recently, President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu,” shut down all flights from China, and blamed Chinese scientists for creating and circulating the virus.

Blame is far from the only weapon deployed by the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic—just as before the pandemic—immigrants were confined in unhygienic US detention centers, where not even soap was provided. These centers became breeding grounds for the virus, leading to sickness and death among their inhabitants. Positivity rates in ICE detention were at least 13 times the national average, and the death rate was sevenfold higher.4 Migrant detainees in rural Georgia who protested the lack of access to medical care faced brutal attacks by Special Operation Response Team guards, who pepper-sprayed them. One officer stated on Facebook that he shot pepper spray at a protesting detainee in a wheelchair, saying the immigrant “felt them mfs.”5

We awake from the nightmare of the past four years, the past four decades, the past four centuries. We imagine a new future without prisons, without borders, and without walls.

The state of pandemic emergency gave anti-immigrants an opportunity to realize their wildest fantasies: creating a white ethnostate by closing borders and turning back migrants. In March 2020, President Trump dusted off a 1944 quarantine law, Title 42, and weaponized it to summarily deny entry to migrants, without conducting the legally mandated screening for asylum seekers.6 From March 2020 to May 2021, more than 867,673 immigrants were expelled under this emergency measure, dwarfing the number of official deportations in the same period.7 Title 42 did an end run around asylum laws, in one of the biggest mass immigrant expulsions in history.

Such extralegal removals have increased dramatically under President Biden.


Inevitability and Resistance

Some people defend the use of police and prisons to hunt down and eliminate the undesirable foreign-born. They claim that these are indispensable weapons in the fight against “illegal” immigration. From this vantage point, migrant prisons appear inevitable.

State violence is not inevitable. It is made by humans, and it can be unmade by them as well. Calling such violence “inevitable” demands we look to other state decisions that have hinged on similar deceitful claims. Migrant prisons are only as “inevitable” as the greatest crimes in US history:

As inevitable as the genocidal killing and mass removal of Indigenous peoples.

As inevitable as the legal and extralegal violence to enslave Africans.

As inevitable as the warfare unleashed on anticolonial insurgents in the Philippines and Vietnam.

As inevitable as the policing, arrest, incarceration, and murder of Black and Brown people.

All these were and are choices. Calling them inevitable is only an attempt to conceal the crime.

What is inevitable, and enduring, is resistance. The long history of resistance by Indigenous people against colonization; by Black people against enslavement and white supremacy; and by all those labeled “outsiders” (whether born in the United States or elsewhere) who strive to be free: all these histories and struggles undergird and inspire today’s resistance against caging migrants.


As American as Child Separation

By Rachel Nolan

The struggle against the criminalization and imprisonment of migrants takes many forms. Incarcerated migrants have engaged in hunger strikes and other kinds of direct action inside detention facilities. In the streets and communities on the outside, growing networks of solidarity are building campaigns of support and freedom for detained people and creating sanctuaries from the modern-day slave catchers employed by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Community organizers have compelled counties and states to end detention contracts with ICE. Activists have mobilized to end the federal government’s use of private, for-profit detention facilities as well as to divest from private prison companies and the prison-industrial complex. Some activists have directly attacked the machinery of detention, lighting ICE facilities ablaze and placing their bodies in front of deportation vans. Just as the abolitionist movement of the 19th century was animated by a range of strategies—including Harriet Tubman’s work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—so too is today’s abolitionist vision sustained through diverse tactics.

And we are winning. Every individual freed, prison closed, and detention contract canceled makes us all more free. But none of these campaigns can be isolated from our larger goal of abolishing prisons and decriminalizing movement. We must continue to seek common cause with activists in the prison-abolition movement as well as those working to abolish ICE and defund the police.

We awake from the nightmare of the past four years, the past four decades, the past four centuries. We imagine a new future without prisons, without borders, and without walls.

Dream with us to build a world of freedom.


This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paik. icon

  1. Clare Ribando Seelke, “Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, 2007–2021,” Congressional Research Service, January 13, 2021; United States Government Accountability Office, “U.S. Assistance to Mexico,” GAO 19-647, September 2019, table 3, p. 10.
  2. Elliott Young, Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), p. 17.
  3. Alexandra Jaffe, “Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala Deploy Troops to Lower Migration,” AP, April 12, 2021.
  4. Parsa Erfani et al., “COVID-19 Testing and Cases in Immigration Detention Centers, April–August 2020,” JAMA, vol. 325, no. 2 (2021); Leigh Hopper, “COVID-19, Suicide, and Substandard Medical Care Driving High Rate of Death among ICE Detainees,” USC News, January 21, 2021.
  5. José Olivares, “ICE’s Immigration Detainees Protested Lack of Coronavirus Precautions—And SWAT-Like Private-Prison Guards Pepper-Sprayed Them,” Intercept, May 5, 2020.
  6. Q&A: US Title 42 Policy to Expel Migrants at the Border,” Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2014.
  7. US Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Land Border Encounters,” accessed June 16, 2021.
Featured-image photograph by Lynne Behrends / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)