Breaking The Chains

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The sight of a person in shackles paints an image of dehumanization, bringing back painful memories from an era when people were treated as commodities. Over two years of litigation recently resulted in San Francisco no longer shackling immigration detainees who pose no threat.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined two law firms in filing a class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Filed on behalf of San Francisco immigration detainees, the outcome guarantees individuals without a violent criminal history will no longer appear before the court in shackles. We share the hopes of the plaintiff’s attorneys that this suit will help pave the way for a similar precedent nationwide.

San Francisco immigration courts serve over 2,000 immigrants a year under ICE custody, all of whom prior to last Thursday’s decision were required to be in shackles during their hearing.

The earliest forms of shackles date back to a prehistoric age. Shackles are referenced in the Bible alongside other ancient texts — every instance of “shackle” refers to a slave or prisoner, suggesting the person is animalistic and subhuman.

This archaic practice violates the eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Granted, violent offenders should not be free to harm themselves or others, especially in a courtroom setting, but every effort should be made to preserve the human dignity of those who pose no threat.

For someone who simply violated the law by being an undocumented immigrant, shackles are humiliating and predispose judges to view them as criminals, undermining the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.” Each of the plaintiffs from the ACLU settlement said they felt ashamed when facing a judge in shackles, according to the Los Angeles Times.

One of the plaintiffs from the settlement, Esmar Cifuentes, a Guatemalan detainee, told the Los Angeles Times he is worried that when “my family comes to see me … my children might think I did something evil, like kill somebody.”

Shackling all immigrants equally suggests they all fit the same bill — that they all need to be restrained — when this is simply not true. Through being shackled, the detainee is also being shackled with a false image, an image of a person who is a risk and a safety threat. A violent criminal and an individual trying to provide for their family back home should not be placed in the same category. The outcome of this suit makes a decisive break with past injustices. Cities across the nation must take note.