Professor Manuel Casas traveled from UCSB to Washington DC in early November, to speak on behalf of illegal immigrants to the United States. At a Congressional hearing, he supported two bills in the House of Representatives that promoted what Casas refers to as “common sense.” Specifically, they would establish guidelines for more humane treatment of detained illegal immigrants and their children. The bills also emphasize family unity.
Casas immigrated to the United States with his family in 1941. “In those days,” he said, “because of the war, it was easier to immigrate because we needed labor. When we need labor, the doors open. But when we don’t, we close the doors.” Currently, he explained, “With the state of the [U.S.] economy, they aren’t going to open those doors. But people who find themselves in a much poorer situation in Mexico have no option but out.” But it’s not immigration policies that Casas hopes to affect right now. “We’re not looking to change the rules and regulations about deportation and punishment,” he said. “These bills concern the immigration services once [people] have been picked up” and taken into custody on suspicion of being in the country illegally.
Detained immigrants suffer from several inhumane conditions: Casas mentioned a lack of basic bedding for children, separation of children from parents, and improper medical attention as a few of the conditions commonly afflicting detainees.
Furthermore, he said immigrants ought to have the right to notify family via phone if they are taken into the custody. If a woman is detained, he said, “she should have a right to make a phone call; to track down her children, to let her family know what has happened. Rather than being taken, separated from her children, and her children not knowing where she is,” and vice versa.
Illegal immigrants are also caught between inconsistencies in state and federal laws. “When they are enforced, they end up sort of working against each other, or causing more pain for the individuals,” said Casas. He cited the example of a woman in the Midwest who was separated from her children when taken to a holding place. After her sister-in-law’s family could no longer afford to care for her children and their own, the woman’s children were sent to a service and eventually adopted. “They were able to do this because the federal law says that she had to be held up in jail. But, being confined, she could not be with her children. State law says that if you are away from your children for a certain amount of time, then you have abandoned them . . . and they can be taken away,” said Casas.
Casas also mentioned that this inhumane treatment would never happen to “somebody that isn’t an immigrant or somebody who has connections . . . but it happens to those who are on the periphery, and it isn’t seen as much of a problem.”
Casas and other Congressional hearing panel-members, including many lawyers, aim to standardize the laws so that they do not differ from state to state, and so that state and federal laws clash. They also want to ensure that immigrants are supplied with a translator, if necessary, so that they can better understand the process through which they are traveling.
Another emphasis at the hearing, Casas said, was the need for more Americans, “especially those who are enforcing the law, to be more aware of these rights that we are asking for these particular individuals.”
To say that Casas feels strongly about this would be an understatement. “My whole training in life has been for what I’m doing now,” he said. “I had to get a PhD and everything else to give credibility to what I would have said anyway . . . to do what our legislators should be doing.”
The small meeting room was packed not only by members of Congress but also by representatives from embassies of the most targeted countries. “It was well-attended,” said Casas. “People were sitting on the floor.”
Casas was asked to speak at the hearing by the American Psychological Association. While he was in DC, he met with Congresswoman Lois Capps. “I made the initial step of meeting with her and explaining [the situation] to her, saying that we needed her support of the bills,” he said. While the bills are still in committee, and opinions are yet to be decisive, Casas described Capps’ response as “positive.”
Since the hearing, he said, the reformers’ agenda has gained momentum. Already, people are contacting him requesting specific data, and he said he hopes to contribute to creating a relatively accessible and complete compilation of information on the topic.
While Casas doesn’t expect an immediate “tremendous difference,” he did issue a basic request: “If you’re locking up kids and families, you could treat these people humanely.”