The ‘American Dream’ vs. The ‘American Reality’: The Fight for Civil Rights – Immigrants

Donald Trump at the US-Mexico Border

31st December 2021

Trump White House Archives

The last piece of this three-part series focuses on the mistreatment and detainment of immigrants in the United States. The ‘American Dream’ is founded on principles of providing opportunities for a better lifestyle, yet under the Trump administration, tens of thousands of migrants were detained and mistreated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 


The infamous notion of the ‘American Dream’ providing a better life is wholly undermined by the, often unlawful, detainment of individuals. The complexities of systemic racism and abuse feed into this, where people of colour are targeted and held in remote, isolated jails without access to basic necessities. 


The systems in place to help the most vulnerable in society have manifestly failed as a result of racism, further administered into the system by Biden’s predecessor. The daily injustices faced by these targeted communities must be recognised through actively participating in movements of change. 




During Trump’s administration, an estimated 26 people died in the immigrant detention centers – including children. This number is likely much higher, with reports of individuals committing suicide, suffering from long-term mental health problems and dying soon after leaving the centers.


The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allows Homeland Security to detain non-U.S. nationals and remove them from the country; however, the treatment, and even detainment, of such immigrants has shown to be unfounded and inhumane. In fact, in 2020 ICE used over $3 billion of taxpayer money to fund the detention of 170,000 immigrants in more than 200 remote and isolated prisons


Unsurprisingly, the current system of large-scale immigration incarceration is built upon the same foundations of racially motivated mass imprisonment, discussed in the first article of this series. The system expanded around the targeting of Black Haitian immigrants and Cubans, influenced by the political rhetoric of over-criminalising petty crimes to incarcerate Black individuals under Reagan’s administration. Since, the same policies and political landscape resulting in the mass imprisonment of Black and Brown individuals has ignited the increase of immigrant detention.


“The criminal-justice system acts like a ‘funnel’ into the immigration system” – Professor of Law, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández


Structural racism imprisoning the Black community spills into the immigration system, where Black immigrants are detained by ICE at a higher rate as a second punishment following involvement with the legal system, and 20% of immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds are Black. Latino and Black men are disproportionately targeted by ICE and subject to disturbing tactics harming their physical and mental wellbeing. 


Under Trump, arrests of non-criminals more than doubled in comparison to the Obama-era. He also reinstated the ICE Secure Communities program (killed under Obama’s administration, and again under Biden’s earlier this year) empowering local police to make immigration arrests, under Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act 1996 (IIRIRA). This legally expanded mandatory detention and the number of deportable crimes. 


The Act seemingly intended to bypass the 14th Amendment, which decrees that those born in the United States are considered citizens, through heavy criminalization – yet again. By increasing the number of deportable crimes and providing power to the police to make such arrests, racial biases in the justice system are fed into the immigration context via the police. 


Looking deeper than the racially motivated roots of immigrant incarceration uncovers the unlawful nature and tactics involved in such detainment. The corruption of ICE has resulted in a system of abuse and systemic racism, where individuals fear for, or even lose, their lives. In 2019, the Trump administration argued in court that the government should not be required to provide toothbrushes or soap to migrant children despite the 1997 Flores Agreement. The Agreement is a set of legal guidelines providing for the minimum conditions in detention, requiring facilities to be ‘safe and sanitary’. Additionally, Trump argued that the government is legally allowed to force children to sleep on concrete floors in cold and overcrowded cells. 


These conditions have led to many deaths as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) held immigrants in dangerously overcrowded cells, and forced migrants to wear soiled clothes for days at a time. The CBP and ICE acted contrary to the Flores Agreement, holding children for extended periods of time in unclean conditions. The Trump administration arguing that children do not need basic toiletries indicates how the government attempted to dismantle the Agreement under a smokescreen argument of a ‘lack of resources’. 


Though Trump’s government suggested that they simply had ‘no resources’ to fund basic necessities in the detention centers, evidently the horrors of ICE detainment were another structural attempt to dehumanize migrants and people of colour. The Trump administration implemented blanket detention policies to jail immigrants with specific vulnerabilities, including pregnant women, elderly individuals and children separated from their parents. In addition to the inhumane conditions mentioned above, these individuals are at a heightened risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Under both Trump and Biden, the pandemic has reinforced ICE’s disregard for detainee’s lives as they have refused to provide sanitizer and masks, recklessly transferred individuals between facilities and caused outbreaks within the jails. The total confirmed COVID-19 cases in ICE custody in 2020 rose to 5,000 from March 2020 to July 2020. The complete and utter disregard for immigrants, majority being people of colour, epitomises the American Reality, where racial biases are systematically diffused within America through political rhetoric and legislation. 


Despite Biden’s campaign promises, the exponential growth of the immigrant detention system undermines national safety, dehumanizes innocent individuals through mistreatment, separates families and even kills. The mere fact children are jailed and kept in worse than prison-like conditions denotes how deeply rooted racial biases and social hierarchies are integrated into the American system. 


The various injustices explored within this series – and many more – are interlinked and serve as the foundations of the American Reality. Racism, homophobia, unequal opportunities and structural inequalities are infused within American society. The many systematic biases comprising the American Reality must be dismantled to achieve equality and the true ‘American Dream’.  


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