Roylan Hernandez Diaz left Cuba in search of a better life in the United States. Instead, he found himself inside Richwood — a Louisiana-based immigrant detention facility. There, he was separated from his wife and struggled to cope with detention. In late October, he took his own life.
Diaz was not alone in his suffering. In fact, Louisiana is at the epicenter of an immigrant detention system that has claimed the lives of nearly 30 people since President Donald Trump took office. This system is bursting at the seams in large part because the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy mandates that officials criminally prosecute and incarcerate unauthorized border crossers, even when they are seeking legal asylum. Because the federal government lacks the resources to detain this deluge of individuals, it has requested the use of jails and prisons in states like Louisiana.
Louisianans should balk at this request — not only because zero tolerance has funneled people into overcrowded detention centers, but also because it has abused due process protections, harmed public safety, and misused taxpayer dollars along the way.
Prosecuting and incarcerating all border crossers, rather than just those who pose a pressing public safety threat, became official policy after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced a “new ‘zero-tolerance’ policy” for illegal entry in April 2018. Before this policy, illegal border crossers could be fined and put through deportation proceedings, but prosecutors generally declined to pursue a criminal case unless the person had a serious criminal history.
The zero tolerance policy’s mandatory prosecution requirement has unnecessarily increased the population in detention centers — including those in Louisiana. These centers were intended for short-term housing, but with the oversaturated court system attempting to handle the influx of border-crossing prosecutions, the facilities are operating at triple and quadruple their capacity and are running short of even the most basic necessities. These conditions have left migrants not with the hope of a new future, but with the fear of remaining where they are indefinitely.
Aside from the human dignity concerns, zero tolerance policies also run afoul of the Constitution. The Constitution’s guarantee of due process ensures that in all legal matters, individuals are well-informed of their rights. This is to prevent an all-powerful government from treating people unfairly. Yet with legal counsel in short supply and streamlined hearings lasting as little as 25 seconds, the government is depriving those accused under the zero tolerance policy of their rights to due process.
What’s more, zero tolerance has not enhanced public safety; rather, it is diminishing it. Evidence suggests that the increase in entry-related prosecutions has led directly to a decrease in prosecutions of crimes that present more pressing public safety threats. In other words, officials are placing narcotics distributions, weapons offenses and human trafficking crimes on the back burner so that United States attorneys can focus on prosecuting border crossings. In the last fiscal year alone, prosecutions for entry-related offenses jumped to over 60 percent of total federal prosecutions, beating out all other categories. This is not only an unacceptable misalignment of our justice system’s goals, it also misappropriates taxpayer dollars.
While Trump administration officials claim that these measures are necessary to discourage immigrants from coming to the United States, it’s clear that zero tolerance hasn’t been successful on that metric, either. After the government announced zero tolerance, illegal border crossings actually increased during the following two months. This year, with zero tolerance still in effect, illegal crossings remain higher than they have been in any year since 2006.
From overcrowded detention centers, to the violations of constitutional rights, to the decrease in public safety, to the misappropriation of taxpayer money, the zero tolerance policy at the Southern border is simply doing more harm than good — and the people of Louisiana are bearing the brunt of the ramifications. It is time for Louisianans to denounce this failed immigration policy.
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