Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Tracing Gila River: A History of US Immigrant Detention



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Laura Saunders. Laura is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and researcher. She graduated from the MA Documentary Photography/Photojournalism Programme at London College of Communication in 2011, and has since focused her work on social issues, specifically exploring themes related to forced migration and its connection to border policies. Her latest project engages migrant and indigenous histories alongside the growth of private for-profit prison industry in Southern Arizona. 

In November 2014, I travelled to Southern Arizona with the expectation that I would create a short photo essay about the militarisation of communities near the US-Mexico border. Nearly a year later, my project ‘Tracing Gila River: A History of US Immigrant Detention,’ has emerged as a comprehensive look at the past, present, and future of this region and how it speaks to the larger picture of contemporary immigration policy. Throughout this research my role has moved between photographer, historian, and sometimes curator as I saw that each perspective was crucial to respectfully navigating such a range of experiences. The images, documents, maps, and drawings that have become a part of this project speak powerfully to the migrant and indigenous communities who have been uprooted and transformed by the growth of the private prison industry, and offer lessons in how the violence of the past is not erased, only remodelled.

Pinal County, Arizona is one of the largest counties in the state and home to four separate Indian communities, all of which were subject to the territorial accords created following the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. This agreement was made following the bloody battles of America’s quest for control of former Mexican and Native American lands, which sold the Southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico for the modern equivalent of $260 million. The Transcontinental Railroad had been in development for nearly 15 years, with vested interests spanning throughout the still juvenile government. Dollar amounts were assigned to the most fertile stretches of land, which had been home to the Hohokam people for centuries and remains home to their descendants: the Maricopa and Pima Indians. At the very edge of this negotiation was the Gila River, the lifeline and agricultural foothold of the region, allowing crops and communities who moved in migratory seasons through these lands to thrive. With the introduction of US cavalry from the East, the river was soon diverted, leaving the tribes destitute and dependent upon the same people who had pulled the water from their land after drawing a border around their mountains.

This story continues at a later date, and at yet another border found further South: the one between the United States and neighboring Mexico. This meandering iron wall has grown to stretch an impressive 698 miles across the desert, breaking only in regions where the Department of Homeland Security saw an opportunity to deter crossings through the hostility of the land itself. Before the borderlands of the Southwest became the violent fable we have come to know today, the two nations saw a steady flow of workers move along legal routes, which offered mutual benefits to both. Farms would contract seasonal laborers to work the land, while also providing temporary shelter. Migrant farmers became a staple of the American Southwest, making up a large population of the agricultural industry’s labor demographic. Children and families alike made the journey to the US, with numbers growing steadily during years of instability caused by the Mexican Revolution.

By the late 1930s, the Great Depression had devastated the American work-force. Jobs suddenly became scarce, leading to a mass deportation scheme known as Mexican Repatriation during which between 500,000 to 2 million Mexicans were forced to leave the US, some of whom were legal citizens. However, the economic climate shifted again during World War II and with it immigration policy. The Bracero Program created a formal agreement for Mexican day laborers to be employed while the US sent its young men to fight the war overseas.

As Braceros entered the southern border by train and bus, Japanese-American citizens found themselves in an increasingly hostile climate, fuelled dramatically by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt in 1942, all Japanese-American citizens were forcibly relocated to various internment camps, located in isolated regions of the Western US. One of these camps was found in Sacaton, Arizona and built without authorisation upon the sacred land of the Pima Indians. The name for this camp is Gila River Relocation Center. Over 300,000 men, women, and children were interned along this stretch of Arizona desert for three years until the war ended in 1945. During their time in camp, many individuals contributed to the war efforts through an ambitious agricultural programme and even assisted with military operations such as the one seen below, where a group of internees drafted plans for navy ship designs.

In December 2014, the small town of Eloy, Arizona, located just 30 minutes down the road from the former site of Gila River Relocation Center, signed a contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company. The contract stipulated that the town of Eloy would function as the manager of a brand new immigrant detention facility built to hold the women and children who had arrived at the border after following extreme outbreaks of violence in Central America. Despite many of these individuals claiming asylum, the system was overwhelmed to the point that there were not enough safe shelters that met standards for holding minors. Rather than waiting the normal period to obtain new permits for construction, this management loophole allowed the South Texas Family Residential Center to open within six months, becoming the largest US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in the nation with 2,400 residents. As a means of subverting long-standing regulations for holding children, CCA and ICE have sought legal approval by applying for child-care licenses. While advocacy groups have had success in challenging these licenses, several family facilities remain open in Dilley and Karnes, Texas as well as Berks, Pennsylvania. Today, the US runs the largest immigrant detention system in the entire world, operating at an annual cost of nearly $2 billion in taxpayer funds.

Growing marketability for immigrant detention reflects the global shift towards border securitisation and policies. Both CCA and GeoGroup (the second largest for-profit prison company in the US) have made it onto top investment lists thanks to their impressive returns in recent years. Eloy may be the first to have found this particular regulatory bypass but it’s typical in the loophole it represents. For many years, these companies have dodged the public eye, operating with the support of taxpayers funding and targeting the vulnerabilities of rural agricultural towns―the same towns that have found themselves losing economy and younger populations due in part to shifts in agricultural industry and dwindling social programmes. The implications for already impoverished communities are profound.

In many ways, ‘Tracing Gila River’ is an attempt to display what has been obscured or, at the least, to visually reinforce the events and people that have helped to build this thriving business. The histories found in Arizona can serve to reveal the colonial legacy of America and the numerous ways it continues to shape the interactions between citizen and corporation.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Saunders, L. (2016) Tracing Gila River: A History of US Immigrant Detention. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/01/tracing-gila (Accessed [date]).

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