Everyone in America wants to belong. My parents immigrated here from India to provide better opportunities for my sister and me. My dad came to Houma, Louisiana with $7 in his pocket, became a physician, and lived the American dream. Their hard work and determination are what inspired me to go into civil rights litigation and help other people navigate their setbacks. They taught me the valuable lesson of having compassion and understanding for all people; that helping other people is synonymous with success. But our current political climate is strife-ridden with rhetoric and policy that undermine the American values of inclusivity and diversity. In this climate, we need more people with compassion and understanding for the struggles that hardworking people living in the United States face every day, especially immigrants.
Recently, President Donald Trump has shown exactly the opposite of compassion for immigrants and people of color, instead attacking four congresswomen with racist, xenophobic comments. The rhetoric that President Trump has propagated is condemnable, and while it is inherently harmful by itself, it also functions as a distraction from the dangerous policies he has put into place throughout his presidency. These policies, such as separating families, detaining children, and manufacturing a crisis at our southern border, have tangible outcomes that harm asylum seekers, immigrants, and Americans. These policies go against our values as Americans, Louisianans, and New Orleanians.
New Orleans is a welcoming city to immigrants, indicative of our values of inclusivity and respect, representing that we not only support the right of immigrants to exist in America but that we embrace them as valuable members of our community. We believe that they belong here. But it is not enough to just protect immigrants within the city limits of New Orleans.
Our policies in Louisiana should reflect our values, but not all of them do. Louisiana is home to three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, and just this year five Louisiana jails have signed agreements with ICE to hold detained immigrants. These facilities in Oberlin, Plain Dealing, Ferriday, Jonesboro, and Richwood operate under the President’s strict zero-tolerance policy, which detains immigrants until their application can be heard in court. With an increasing number of immigration courts backlogged for years, this policy is unjustifiable. According to Mother Jones magazine, the sheriff’s departments in these communities make $65 per immigrant per day, more than double what they make for holding prisoners who are US citizens. With an average of 5,450 ICE detainees now being held in Louisiana, that is $354,250 in federal taxes being spent each day to detain immigrants, many of whom are asylum seekers fleeing violence in their home countries and looking for better opportunities for their children. Not only is this practice a waste of our money, but more importantly it is immoral and inexcusable. We should not be incarcerating people that are seeking asylum in Louisiana.
ICE’s entry in Louisiana at this time— when many jails have empty beds as the result of positive criminal justice reform that reduced our rates of incarceration— is opportunistic and predatory. Since 2017, Louisiana has made strong progress toward improving our criminal justice practices and reducing our incarceration rate. Between October of 2017 and December of 2018, we reduced our jail population by around 2,700, dropping us from our rank as the most incarcerated state. But with the entry of ICE in Louisiana, we have seen one population of incarcerated people replaced with another. ICE’s new contracts in Louisiana allow them to send 2,800 new detainees to Louisiana, the almost exact replacement number for our former prison population. We now have the third highest number of ICE detainees, behind only Texas and California, and far less immigration attorneys than either of them. This cannot be tolerated. As long as there is a strong ICE presence in Louisiana, immigrants will not feel safe in the communities they have lived in for decades. We saw what happened next door in Mississippi: raids left children abandoned with nowhere to go, only able to rely on the kindness of strangers and neighbors. This horrifying new status quo is simply not acceptable.
At times like this, we have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to take action against the choices and plans being made in Oberlin, Plain Dealing, Ferriday, Jonesboro, and Richwood to increase jails’ capacities to detain up to 2,800 immigrants and asylum seekers. It is also crucial that we do everything in our power to shut down the existing ICE detention centers in Alexandria, Pine Prairie, and Jena where over 2,650 people are being detained. With racially-charged attacks coming from the Oval Office, we are at a crucial point in history where we must fight for our values. We have to take the necessary measures to reduce the presence of ICE in our communities, which makes immigrants feel unsafe and instills distrust within our homes. Most importantly, we need to fight for policy that incorporates compassion, uplifts communities and protects those coming to Louisiana for better opportunities for themselves and their children.
Ravi Sangisetty is a Democrat running for the Louisiana State House of Representatives – District 98, and he has dedicated his career to helping others navigate their own setbacks. His work in the law has overlapped with many issues in the state legislature, and he knows he can make a broader impact on the community as a state representative.