Detention Centers: Background information when reading The Leavers

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The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko X
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
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  • First Published:
    May 2017, 352 pages
    Apr 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Janet Garber

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Detention Centers

This article relates to The Leavers

Print Review

Texas Border Detention CenterIn Lisa Ko's The Leavers, one of the female characters is abruptly transported to the fictional Ardsleyville immigration detention center. She is interned in an unheated room with other women, glaring lights on overhead 24/7. She's fed inedible mush, given minimal time outside, and is usually shackled. No attempts are made to secure her legal advice or help her contact her family, and she isn't allowed visitors and doesn't know the whereabouts of her young child. The reader knows her motives, and knows of her hard work ethic and love for her son. She is not a violent criminal – her only crime was hiring a smuggler to sneak her into the country.

The character is fictional. But her plight is true.

Detainment has been a part of immigration since Ellis Island in the 1890s. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2014 the United States deported more than 400,000 of the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country, often detaining them first for varying lengths of time. At any given time, about 30,000 illegal immigrants are spread out over 200 centers, the largest population detained anywhere in the world. Separation of US-born children from their parents is commonplace and these children are sometimes put up for adoption by American citizens.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, the living conditions in many detention centers constitutes an assault on human rights: no privacy, lights on constantly, cold dirty rooms, and rats. Internment is currently subcontracted out to a dozen different private groups who run the centers for a profit. Detainment costs taxpayers approximately two billion dollars per year. Between 2003 and 2016, 165 deaths were reported in detention centers. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), part of Homeland Security, acknowledges that the system needs to be improved.

According to Pew, workers without legal status are spread across many occupations with the highest concentration in farming (26% of workers) and construction (15% of workers.) According to The Center for American Progress, a policy of mass deportation would reduce the nation's gross domestic product by 1.4 percent immediately, with a reduction of cumulative GDP over 10 years of $4.7 trillion. If, on the other hand, illegal immigrants could somehow work towards gaining citizenship, 145,000 jobs would be added annually with a proportional increase in GDP.

Economics aside, just like the character in The Leavers, most of the people in detention centers are hard working, struggling, loving people trying to make better lives for themselves and their families.

Texas border immigration detention center, courtesy of Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Leavers. It originally ran in May 2017 and has been updated for the April 2018 paperback edition.

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