How disenfranchisement leads to second class citizenship

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This past Saturday, at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Harry Belafonte delivered an inspiring call to action to save our children from an education system that does more to prepare them for prison than for success.

Twenty-hours before, with far less celebrity fanfare but no less impact, civic leaders marking the end of a week-long fast in Homestead, Fla. spoke of the urgent need to end the ongoing detention and deportation raids carried out against immigrants.

On first glance, few might make any connection between the mass incarceration of black communities inflicted through the War on Drugs and the draconian law enforcement measures that are being carried out while Washington negotiates a new  immigration system. Yet the response to both issues has created a path to disenfranchisement and marginalization that threatens to undermine opportunity and mobility for all impacted communities.

A decades-long demonization

From the Reagan to George W., the government has increasingly looked to criminalize non-violent offenses as a matter of social and economic policy.  As Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer recently pointed out, the trend in harsher immigration has been building since 2005, when the Bush administration decided to change its tactics on border enforcement. Instead of just releasing those who had attempted illegal entry back on the other side of the border, the federal government classified the non-violent act as a federal offense with potential jail time for repeat offenders.

A similar shift happened in the eighties in the re-classification of minor drug offenses. But the mass incarceration of mostly African-Americans for non-violent offenses has done more to tear apart the fabric of our neighborhoods than it has to provide security and lower overall incidences of violence. It has also provided a new institutional path to disenfranchisement.

In my state, Florida, more than 1.5 million people cannot participate in local, state and national elections because of their criminal records. Millions more face a life of limited economic and social opportunities even though they have served their time, a new form of double jeopardy that many acknowledge but few want to do anything about. Behind the scenes, it has created its own monster industry, the prison industry, which has developed it own veracious appetite for keeping jail cells filled, and keeping the construction of prisons as the public main expenditure.

History repeats itself…in the worst way

Why are we choosing to repeat the mistakes of a generation ago with a new set of aspiring Americans? It can’t be because the strategy is working. At the time of the Bush administration, it was touted that the stiffened penalties would serve a powerful deterrent to impressible crossings. However, the result has been anything but a slowdown in attempted illegal entries. Wilder says that in 2011, there were 71,000 people prosecuted for illegal entry, an increase of over 700 percent since 2001.

Certainly the money doesn’t hurt. While most first-time offenders are given probation, their processing and the attempted return of thousands now requires more funds to be devoted to detention and incarceration. Not surprisingly, this has meant a boom for the private prison industry that the Sentencing Project says grew 259 percent from 2002 to 2010.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, “the nation’s two largest private prison operators have  more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005, contributing to overall combined revenues that eclipsed $3 billion in 2011.” The prison industry has gotten so comfortable with its earnings that corporate builder GEO group had enough money to offer 6 million dollars to Florida Atlantic University for the corporate naming rights to their stadium this past February.

Corrupting the public trust

The Obama administration may think that they need to maintain the high rate of detentions to convince enough legislators on the right that the government can be efficient in securing our borders. But we cannot criminalize our way to a stronger community. Doing so ultimately corrupts public trust, fosters divisive fear and helps individual corporate interests more than it does the overall economy.

Immigrant or not, it’s hard to maintain a strong democracy if mobility and opportunity are being systematically crippled. At the end of the day, it’s hard to depend on your neighbor when you don’t know if you are going to see him or her from one day to the next.