Frontline: “Lost In Detention”
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Frontline: “Lost In Detention”

B

Frontline

“Lost In Detention”

Season 30, Episode 2
B

Frontline

“Lost In Detention”

Season 30, Episode 2

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“Lost in Detention” is a critique of the Obama administration’s immigration policies, but, for those viewers who believed in the President’s message of change, it also provides a depressingly vivid illustration of his political shortcomings. When he took office in 2009, Obama promised a two-step approach to the issue of immigration: stricter enforcement would have to come first, followed by comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  Now almost three years into his tenure, Obama has deported a record 1 million undocumented immigrants, while proposed reforms—like the DREAM Act or a humane guest worker program—have virtually no chance of passing a Republican-controlled House. In effect, Obama is now enacting the Republican agenda on immigration, while deferring his own policy goals. (Sound familiar?)

The first and most effective segment of “Lost in Detention” looks at the human toll of Obama’s immigration policy via the Garcia family of Illinois. In February last year, Roxana Garcia, an undocumented immigrant with five American-born children, was deported back to Mexico after being pulled over for a routine traffic violation. Her husband, Antonio, is now faced with a miserable choice: raise five children on his own, or send them to Mexico—a country they’ve never even visited. Correspondent Maria Hinojosa’s interview with the Garcia children, who are heartbroken as much by their mother’s absence as by their country’s betrayal, is wrenching.

So why was she deported? Illinois is enrolled in the Obama administration’s Secure Communities initiative, a program that makes it easier for local authorities to vet the immigration status of people who’ve been arrested—even those who’ve been picked up for minor infractions like a broken tail-light. The program has contributed to the record number of deportations under Obama’s tenure: 400,000 a year and a total of 1 million since he took office. One administration official touts the law-and-order benefits of the policy, claiming that it’s removed “1,000 murderers and 6,000 sex offenders off the street.”

However, the evidence presented in “Lost in Detention” suggests that, in an attempt to meet their quota, officials are going after “low-hanging fruit”: otherwise law-abiding citizens with no prior criminal record who, quite simply, end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the administration’s claims that Secure Communities targets “the worst of the worst,” only 20 percent of those deported from Illinois have been convicted of a serious crime. That's because, despite what the Tea Party would have you believe, the average undocumented immigrant in America is not a bloodthirsty drug lord. Some 46 percent of the undocumented live in a family, and the majority have been here longer than 11 years. Like it or not, they are people who have laid down roots in the US—roots that are irrevocably damaged when they get deported.

Even for those with less empathy for the plight of the undocumented will be troubled by the unexpected consequences of Secure Communities. In an effective move, “Lost in Detention” features an extensive interview with Sheriff Mark Curran, a Republican who was once a strong advocate of the program but has since become a vocal opponent. He claims that it is actually an impediment to effective law enforcement, because it discourages immigrants from cooperating or even interacting with the police. As he puts it, “Law enforcement works best when it’s engaged with the community. To have the community not working with you, that’s a frightening proposition.”

The second portion of “Lost in Detention” looks at the systemic abuses in the fastest-growing incarceration system in the country: the 250 detention centers across the country that house detainees. Of particular interest is the Willacy Detention Center in south Texas, a massive complex of Kevlar tents run by—you guessed it—a private contractor. Hinojosa interviews “Mary,” a Canadian citizen who was sent to Willacy after being arrested on a 10-year-old warrant for an accidentally bounced check. At Willacy, she was repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by a guard, and numerous other detainees reported similar patterns of abuse. Despite 900 complaints filed by detainees, a federal audit gave Willacy a grade of “good.” The truly alarming revelation in “Lost in Detention” is that people like “Mary” have almost no legal rights in the US: As detainees, they do not have the right to an attorney, and most have to defend themselves. Immigration is, in the eyes of the federal government, an “administrative matter,” not a civil rights issue.

The final act of the hour is somewhat less effective. Hinojosa pulls back to consider the implications of Obama’s immigration policies on his status in the Latino community. She speaks to Nina Torres, a former adviser to the President who now calls his policies “shameful." She also interviews top administration official Cecilia Muñoz, who insists—rather unconvincingly—that Obama is not enacting a Republican agenda and that his attempts at immigration reform have been stymied by intransigent Republicans. While Obama should certainly be taken to task for his broken promises to the Latino community, there’s a oddly self-defeating aspect to the last few minutes of “Lost in Detention.” Hinojosa ends by suggesting that, without high turnout in the Latino community, Obama might be doomed in several swing states next year.  For those of us who shudder at the thought of President Romney (let’s not even entertain the thought of President Perry, shall we?) it’s certainly a wake-up call, but for millions of undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, the stakes are already much, much higher.  Why focus on the potential electoral impact of Obama’s policies, when the human toll has already been so dire?

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