In “Sleepwalker,” David Mikhail does a service by detailing Shakir Baloch’s experience of post–9/11 detention in Brooklyn’s federal prison, and especially by emphasizing the lasting consequences of that experience. But when Mikhail writes that “Baloch is a victim of a policy that, pre–9/11, would have been unthinkable,” he makes the same crucial mistake that so many critics of immigration detention have made, blaming it all on Bush/Cheney.
If the unthinkable policy to which Mikhail refers is the use of administrative detention by the immigration agency to hold noncitizens for visa or work–permit violations, often after arrests based on profiling; to keep them locked up for unspecified lengths of time, sometimes years, while actively denying them access to legal help and due process, often verbally and physically abusing them, and inflicting lasting trauma on individuals, families, and communities—this was all solidly in place on September 10, 2001, as I show in some detail in my book American Gulag. Even the use of unsubstantiated “terrorist” allegations against South Asians and Arabs from many countries was already a common feature of this regime.
There were more than 20,000 people in the custody of U.S. immigation officials on September 10, 2001, and the most explosive growth in that number since the 1980s was the direct result of anti–immigrant laws signed by President Clinton. Today there are more than 30,000 noncitizens in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, and the system is likely to keep growing while it becomes kinder and gentler under the Obama Administration.
Attention should now be focused on the laws that continue to put so many noncitizens— including legal residents —into detention and deportation proceedings.