After decades of misguided policies and patchwork practices, the high human costs of our disordered immigration system are only starting to emerge. Stricter immigration policies and overcrowded detention centers aren’t making our streets safer or our social services more accessible.

Instead, mounting evidence shows that our immigration policies are just creating a space for immigrants to be brutalized—socially, financially and physically. From reports of sexual abuse inside of detention centers to news of legal residents being denied social services, the ineffectiveness of the prevailing system has never been more apparent, nor the need for reform so great.

Women and children sexually assaulted in detention centers

As Michelle Chen writes at Colorlines, allegations of sexual abuse within a Texas detention center have sparked investigations by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. According to reports, a guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center sexually assaulted several women while transporting them prior to their release.

Human Rights Watch, which this week released a comprehensive report on sexual abuse in detention, regards the incident as representative of a larger problem that affects both women and children caught in the web of the detention system. From the report:

Children, too, have apparently been subject to alleged abuse in Texas immigration detention facilities, although their care is overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), rather than ICE. Nine Central American children, one of whom was identified as 16 years old, reported sexual and physical abuse while in the custody of Texas Sheltered Care […] the children were fondled, groped, and forced to perform oral sex on one guard, and some were beaten by other guards.

While sexual assault is pervasive within the prison system, women in the immigration detention are particularly vulnerable. The threat of deportation and the lack of comprehensive oversight of detention centers (many of which are operated by for-profit corporations rather than ICE itself) both contribute to a culture of impunity. The fact that most individuals detained in ICE facilities are non-criminals only renders the situation even more reprehensible.

As Chen points out, it is likely many victims of abuse have already been deported, were offered no recourse, and have no incentive to report the crimes now.

Marginalizing undocumented victims of violent crime

Outside of detention centers, immigrant victims of violent crime are similarly handicapped by the justice system. While U-visas are available to undocumented crime victims who cooperate with prosecutors, Elyse Foley of the Washington Independent reports that such visas are issued inconsistently and at the discretion of local law enforcement.

In Maricopa County, Arizona (the land of Sheriff Joe Arpaio) former Attorney General Andrew Thomas allegedly ignored numerous requests for U-visas because he believed that undocumented immigrants were trying to use them to stay in the country.

Such politicking on the part of local law enforcement can have disastrous consequences, particularly in Arizona, where Arpaio’s aggressive policing of immigrants has created a culture of fear. Local immigrant rights groups now claim that migrants are refusing to report even violent crimes committed against them for fear of being arrested for their immigration status.

Criminalizing immigrants clogs the system

The impunity with which crimes are committed against immigrants, both in and out of detention, isn’t likely to end as long as our immigration system remains overcrowded and mismanaged. But, as Jim Loebe writes over at AlterNet, “real reform is still a long way off.” The government continues to increasingly criminalize immigration violations. Citing a new paper by the Global Detention Project, Loebe argues that more people, not less, are going to end up in detention in coming years, in spite of the president’s promise of reform.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s enforcement programs, from expanding the controversial Secure Communities program to the new border security bill, have been successful at detaining and deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants. But in spite of President Barack Obama’s assurances that his programs only target dangerous immigrants, the majority of those deported and in detention have no criminal records. Our broken system even penalizes refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom find themselves incarcerated for months or years while their cases are processed.

The unexpected impact of health care reform

In this anti-immigrant climate, legal immigrants and their American children are also facing unprecedented challenges, even as other citizens are enjoying greater security.

At The American Prospect, Maria C. Abascal argues that, while health care reform clearly excludes undocumented immigrants, it also hurts legal immigrants in less obvious ways. Not only are legal residents subject to a five-year waiting period to qualify for Medicaid (meaning low-income migrants and their children will likely remain uninsured), some analysts also believe that “health reform reduces the likelihood of immigration reform because it significantly increases the fiscal cost of amnesty.”

While the anti-immigrant sentiment that infused the health care debate earlier this year certainly suggested that reform wouldn’t be kind to the undocumented, few could have guessed that the Affordable Care Act would impact legal migrants and their American children so unfortunately. It begs the question: Should comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality, what kind of unintended consequences might it bring, and who might it ultimately hurt?

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