SLATE: Into The Void — Appalled Attorney Dan Canon Says Immigration Detention Diminishes, Dehumanizes All Of Us!

“A couple of weeks ago, for the first time ever, I represented an undocumented worker in deportation proceedings. Or rather, I tried to. My attempts to navigate this system were not what I would call successful. Part of this may be due to the fact that, though I have been a practicing attorney for 10 years, this was my first go at immigration law. But another part of it—most of it, I’d venture—is due to the fact that the U.S. immigration system is designed to be opaque, confusing, and inequitable.

Under most circumstances, I would not wade into this kind of thing at all. I’m primarily a civil rights lawyer, and immigration is a highly specialized area of law with a unique set of risks awaiting unwary practitioners. I would not, for example, take someone’s bankruptcy case or file adoption papers. I would refer those to lawyers with experience in those areas. But the crisis of unrepresented detainees is too big and too pressing to leave to the few organizations and individual practitioners with expertise in immigration law. One recent study found that only about 14 percent of detainees have representation. That’s out of nearly 300,000 cases in the immigration courts every year.*

If I killed someone on the street in broad daylight, I‘d be entitled to an attorney. But those summoned before the immigration courts, including infants who have been brought here by their parents, have no right to counsel. They can hire immigration lawyers, but only if they can pay for them. Most of them can’t, and volunteer lawyers are scarce. So children, parents, and grandparents are locked up for months, sometimes years, waiting for a day in court. When they show up in front of a judge, they do so alone and terrified. Those who don’t speak English are provided an interpreter who tells them what’s being said, but no one is there to tell them what’s really happening.

Undocumented people who live here in Louisville and southern Indiana are driven 90 minutes to the jail in Boone County, Kentucky. There, they are placed in the general population with locals who have actually been accused of crimes. That’s where my client, who was assigned to me by an overburdened immigration firm, was taken after he was scooped up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the parking lot of his apartment building.

Entering the United States, even without proper documentation, is not a criminal offense. The only “crime” my client committed is trying to get his family away from the drug cartels that overtook his Central American village. Unlike many who come here fleeing crippling poverty, he and his family were getting along fairly well in their home country. A little success, it turns out, can make you a target for violent extortionists. His wife, who fled the exact same situation in the exact same place, was apparently catalogued as an asylum-seeker, but her husband was not.

The Kentucky facility doesn’t allow a phone call, even for an attorney, without an appointment. Requests to call your client must be made by fax. Sometimes the jail will call you to say your 2 p.m. time slot has been changed to 6 p.m., and sometimes you won’t get any notification at all. The visitation restrictions for families are no more accommodating. Visitation amounts to 45 minutes a week, tops. If my client’s wife, daughter, or grandkids want to visit him, they have to drive 90 minutes and hope for the best.

. . . .

What happened to my client and his family wasn’t anomalous. It wasn’t even unusual. It happens all over the country, every single day. Part of what makes our immigration system so reprehensible is that it’s so easy to ignore. Most of us don’t ever have to deal with it in any meaningful way or even think about it. But stop and consider that this practice of moving detainees from place to place randomly, with no notice given to their families or their attorneys, is indescribably cruel. Stop and consider that locking up human beings in jail for months to coerce them into submission is maddeningly unjust. And then consider the possibility that the whole system is not just dysfunctional, but utterly diabolical.

Further consider that the practice of breaking up families and making people disappear into black holes is the result of a set of loosely defined policy goals that are in no way based on reality. There’s no real evidence to support the notion that undocumented immigrants are any more dangerous than anyone else, or that they “steal” jobs from Americans, or that they do anything but contribute to the economy overall. There is no policy reason for inflicting this misery on people. It’s just cruel.

Lest anyone think this is just more liberal railing against the Trump administration, this system pre-dates the orange guy. The Obama administration sucked more than three million people into the lungs of this administrative monster and spit them out all over the world. Having seen up close what this system does to families, it’s hard to forgive that, especially when you consider that American trade policies contributed to the collapse of Latin America. But hell, we’re all complicit in this. We let it happen every day.

I’m going to suggest something I have never suggested to any working person: If you are part of this machine—if you are a guard, an agent, a janitor, or anything in between—quit. Walk off your job. Right now. You’ve got bills to pay? A family to support? I get it. So do the people who come here looking for a better existence. The system you are contributing to is preposterously evil. It separates mothers from their children. It kills innocent people. It exists only to make easy punching bags out of those damned by their circumstances, some of whom have already lived through unspeakable horrors.

For everyone else: If you’ve never thought about your tacit support for this system, start thinking about it. Start resisting it. Start demanding its abolition. A Kafkaesque bureaucracy needs participants, both willing and unwilling. We have the power to dismantle it.”


As noted in Canon’s article, immigration detention originated long before the Trump Administration. The Obama Administration certainly wasn’t afraid to use detention as an attempted deterrent to asylum seekers. Additionally, the Obama administration essentially argued for “eternal detention” pending final determinations in Removal Proceedings in a case that is currently pending decision before the Supremes. Jennings v. Rodriguez, see previous blog here: The often prolonged detention of women and children asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle by the Obama Administration will go down as one of the darker chapters in American human rights history.

Unfortunately, however, we haven’t hit bottom yet. The Trump Administration’s plans for enhanced immigration enforcement will certainly involve even more widespread use of immigration detention as a tool of deterrence, coercion, and denial of due process, with all of the additional human abuses that is likely to engender.

One qualification/explanation of Canon’s statement that: “Entering the United States, even without proper documentation, is not a criminal offense.” In fact, it usually is.  Under 8 U.S.C. 1325, “improper entry by an alien” is a misdemeanor, although often not prosecuted. A second conviction is a felony.

An individual without documentation who appears at a U.S. port of entry ands applies for asylum would not be committing a criminal offense. But, according to a number of recent media accounts, such individuals currently are being sent back to Mexico and told to await “an appointment.”

Additionally, the Trump Administration has indicated that it would like to develop a process to return non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico while they are awaiting hearings in U.S. Immigration Court. So far, the Mexican government has indicated that it would not agree to such a program.