Breaking Chains: Rejecting Increased Border Militarization for Migrant Justice

Silky Shah, a prominent voice in the movement to end the incarceration of immigrants in the U.S., makes a compelling argument against the intertwined systems of immigration enforcement and the prison-industrial complex in her book “Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition.” Shah, who is the executive director of the Detention Watch Network, explores the dual systems of oppression that operate under a carceral logic aimed at punishing infractions with rigorous enforcement and mass incarceration.

In a detailed discussion, Shah explains the extensive history of immigration policies shaped by societal fears and racial biases. Her insights reveal a troubling tradition of exclusion based on race and origin, a paradigm that distinguishes between “good” and “bad” immigrants, heavily influenced by their racial and national backgrounds. This perspective isn’t just historical; it continues to inform current immigration debates and policies.

Shah’s interview highlights a resurgence in the call for the abolition of immigrant detention, particularly during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when the Black Lives Matter uprisings and reports of abusive conditions in detention centers brought these issues to the forefront. Despite this momentum, mainstream demands for reform have often reverted to calls for better management rather than a true end to incarceration, a pattern Shah criticizes for maintaining the status quo of “comfortable cages” rather than dismantling the systems entirely.

Critically, Shah addresses the misconceptions surrounding the necessity of detention facilities. She challenges the rationale that immigration detention is a just punishment for lawbreakers, pointing out that most immigration violations are civil, not criminal. The real motivation behind mass detention, according to Shah, is a societal inclination to control and segregate individuals deemed disposable by government standards, facilitated by fearmongering and economic interests tied to the prison-industrial complex.

The book “Unbuild Walls” also sheds light on how certain immigrants are deemed worthy of acceptance into American society while others are not, a division that has deep historical roots. This discriminatory practice was notably institutionalized with laws like the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century and was later perpetuated by policies responding to various waves of immigration, each influenced by contemporary racial and xenophobic anxieties.

The Clinton era marked a significant expansion in the scope of what was considered criminal behavior, contributing to a surge in immigrant detentions and setting a precedent that future administrations would follow. Despite attempts at reform, subsequent administrations, including that of Barack Obama, expanded these policies, which were further exploited by Donald Trump to implement even more draconian measures.

Shah is adamant that the fight for immigrant justice should not involve compromises that increase border militarization or expand the detention and deportation infrastructure. Such trade-offs, she argues, undermine the movement for true immigrant justice. Instead, she advocates for a complete overhaul of the current system, shifting the focus from punitive measures to humane treatment and integration.

The discussion extends beyond policy critiques to a call for a radical reimagining of employment and societal integration for individuals currently working in the detention system, proposing that facilities could be repurposed rather than simply eliminated.

As movements and communities rally for change, Shah’s perspective offers a blueprint for dismantling oppressive systems and envisioning a future where immigration policy is grounded in humanity and justice, not punishment and exclusion. Her insights compel us to reconsider the roots of our policies and push for a world where all individuals, regardless of origin, are treated with the dignity they inherently deserve.