The immigration debate raging across the country may seem somewhat removed from us here in Louisiana, where the biggest threat to our southern border is an eroding coast line.
But the issue of what to do with desperate, impoverished migrants and political asylum seekers—and how we treat them while we try to figure that out—is actually more relevant in this state than you might think.
In fact, Louisiana may soon house more migrant detainees than any state but Texas, according to some estimates. Unsurprisingly, we’re not doing a great job at it, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed in May against the New Orleans field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The suit, filed on behalf of the detainees by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, details through stories and statistics the travails of migrant detainees, who presented themselves legally on U.S. soil and were able to successfully demonstrate that they face a credible threat in the homelands they fled.
Nevertheless, they were locked up in rural Louisiana and Mississippi prisons. These facilities are privately run, for the most part, which means there’s little accountability, and they’re located, essentially, in the middle of nowhere—places like Jonesboro, Jena and Pine Prairie, where it’s hard for the prying eyes of the media to see what’s going on and logistically challenging for overworked, underpaid immigration attorneys to provide effective representation.
Not that effective legal representation necessarily counts for much, according to the lawsuit. The New Orleans ICE field office, which has jurisdiction over Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, is notorious for denying parole. Despite a binding 2009 policy directing ICE to release asylum seekers—provided they establish their identity and show they are not in danger of flight risk—the New Orleans field office, of late, has essentially ignored the policy and denied parole in almost every case.
In 2016, more than 70% of asylum seekers were granted parole while waiting for the courts to hear their pleas. In 2018, only 1.5% were—a mere two cases out of 130.
“Hundreds of asylum seekers are incarcerated for months on end, enduring abuses in confinement in exchange for the right to press their claims in court,” the lawsuit alleges. “ICE’s refusal to consider the release of these asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis violates federal law, costs taxpayers millions of dollars a month and causes untold suffering to the men and women who seek legal protection in the U.S.”
The statistics are troubling, especially when you consider that rural Louisiana sheriffs stand to profit from this misery in a big way. As the number of state inmates housed in parish prisons has fallen—the result of criminal justice reforms passed in 2017— ICE has helped local law enforcement make up the lost revenue by paying a premium.
“ICE is offering these sheriffs around $60 a day,” says Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. “We pay $25.39 a day so when you do the math, it’s a no-brainer.”
But as disturbing as the data is—and the attitude of those at the state, who essentially wash their hands of what is going on because it concerns privately run, parish-owned facilities housing federal detainees and, therefore, doesn’t involve them—the stories of those rotting away in places like Pine Prairie and Plain Dealing are worse.
They are stories like those of Toledo Flores, who’s been behind bars in Bossier Parish for the better part of a year. He’s a pharmacy technician from Cuba, who left his country in 2018, after defying orders from Cuban authorities to withhold medication from a client in an effort to harm the guy, who was apparently causing trouble for the Communist government.
As payback, Flores was beaten and fired. He fled to the U.S., where he passed a credible fear interview, yet he has been locked up in three different prisons and denied parole.
The lawsuit also tells the story of Puche Moreno, a Venezuelan political activist and member of the opposition party that has been seeking to oust the corrupt Maduro regime. Because of his advocacy, Moreno was kidnapped and beaten by agents of the ruling party. He fled to the U.S., leaving behind a young wife, after learning about threats to his life. Like Flores, Moreno passed the credible fear test. But he has been denied parole four times and remains in custody in an equally far-afield facility in Tallahatchie, Mississippi.
By any measure, men like Moreno and Flores should be considered heroes, those who stood on the right side of history, the kind of people who really could help make America great again because—as their actions suggest—they believe in freedom and the principles of democracy. Instead, they’re living in some sort of dystopian nightmare, a hell most of us cannot begin to fathom.
Make no mistake: This country is in the throes of a migrant crisis. Desperate, impoverished people are pouring across our borders by the thousands every day, and all the tough talk and threats have, in some respects, only exacerbated the problem. We need to find a reasonable, humane solution—and that does not necessarily mean open borders.
But in the meantime, we need to realize how this is playing out for real men, women and children in respite centers, detention facilities and prisons right here in Louisiana. We have faced no greater humanitarian crisis on our shores in our lifetime. We need to do better.