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Nightmarish conditions inside Ecuador’s prisons have exploded into international news. Overcrowding, a struggle for territory between drug cartels, and correctional officers’ loss of control inside carceral facilities set the scene for a series of prison riots beginning in February 2021 that have claimed the lives of numerous incarcerated people—just how many have been killed or injured is still not known.
The drug trade in Ecuador has been operating from its prisons for some time, but violence flared up after the charismatic leader of Ecuador’s largest drug cartel, Los Choneros, was murdered in late 2020. To attempt to address the problem, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso in December 2021 convened a commission that, in his words, “would analyze the causes and effects of the current prison situation.” But according to Dr. Luis Barrios, a professor in John Jay’s Latin American and Latinx Studies Department and in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Psychology and Social Welfare programs, the conditions that allowed this to happen have been around since long before 2021.
“Stop saying this is an inmate issue,” he says, quoting a recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “this is a structural, systemic issue.” Barrios points to a culture of reaction rather than prevention, a lack of effective public policy to deal with criminal justice matters, and pervasive corruption. All of this has created an environment inside the prisons where violence is incentivized. “In this type of environment, this is the way to survive. You kill or they kill you. That is part of the reality that we want to describe.”
Dr. Barrios serves as one of seven members of the independent commission created by President Lasso; his participation came at the request of the incarcerated. His scholarship brought him into contact with and gained the trust of gang members on the streets of Ecuador, New York City, and elsewhere, working with John Jay professor David Brotherton to study gangs as social organizations. Now he brings that expertise to this work, visiting prisons one week of every month through June 2022 in order to produce a report that will effect real change in Ecuador.
“As a commission, we went beyond diagnosis; we went inside the prison, we are spending quality time. You can feel the pain, frustration, and anger,” says Barrios. “So instead of just giving a diagnosis, we decided to create proposals that the government can implement immediately to deal with this prison crisis.”
Among the proposals called for by commission members: an increased focus on crime prevention rather than punishment; human rights protections; decentralization of the legal and judicial system; better training for correctional officers and prison administrators; an effective prison census; and access to health services and educational opportunities for the incarcerated, including programs that give inmates other options besides engaging in the drug trade.
Dr. Barrios brings his activism to both of his vocations: academia and the priesthood. He sees both as complimentary opportunities to empower communities and work for justice. This work informs his objections to the Ecuadorian government’s proposed “mano dura,” or zero tolerance, approach to shutting down gang violence in prisons. Above all, he seeks to use his role on the commission to protect Ecuador’s vulnerable incarcerated populations and guarantee that the government respects human rights. “There’s no neutrality when it comes to dealing with justice,” he says. “You take the side of justice or you take sides against it—when you say you’re not going to get involved, you are already involved.”
Dr. Luis Barrios has been a faculty member at John Jay College for 28 years, and at CUNY for even longer. During that time, he has worked on projects that blend social action and scholarship, involving gangs and gang violence, deportation, human rights, clinical work focused on trauma and abuse, and contemporary perspectives of life on the Dominican-Haitian border.
August 8, 2018 – The Graduate Center of CUNY has the benefit of some of the best immigration scholars in the country. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, in which this contentious issue will play (and has already been seen to play) a big role, six distinguished faculty experts on immigration sat down to brief the press on a variety of issues surrounding evolving immigration policy under the Trump administration and related issues, including demographics, economics, and the sociocultural experience of immigrants in the United States.
The panel kicked off with CUNY Graduate Center Distinguished Professor of Sociology Richard Alba, who introduced the idea that immigration policy under President Trump is the most restrictionist and selective this country has seen since the inter-war period of the 1920s. However, he suggested that there are a number of structural constraints on this administration’s ability to push immigration restrictions too far. These include business’s need for new workers, both skilled and unskilled; demographic indicators of an impending dearth of young workers; and a lack of political will even among a Republic Congress to enact major immigration legislation.
Next, David Brotherton, a professor of sociology and criminologist from John Jay College, brought up the idea that the “deportation regime” under Donald Trump is not unique in the history of the United States. He noted earlier examples of deportation- or exclusion-oriented federal policy, including the 1996 Immigrant Responsibility Act, Indian Removal Act, and the 19th century Chinese Exclusion Act. Dr. Brotherton went on to discuss the origins of the Trump Administration’s restrictive immigration policies, particularly the president’s campaign tactics of stoking panic in a segment of the population that feels insecure about their place in society. He emphasized that this strategy represents only the latest in a series of moral panics in American history, calling back to the War on Drugs and earlier rhetoric about the dangers of young black and Latino men.
Dr. Brotherton described U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as arguably the “largest police force in the United States.” ICE’s detention and deportation of immigrants is retroactively punishing many non-native Americans for crimes in their pasts; because these individuals have since put down roots in the country, with families, jobs and wider communities that are hurt when they are suddenly taken away, the policy is cruel. For this reason, Dr. Brotherton has acted as an expert witness since 2007, testifying to the effects of deportation on the individuals detained, their communities, and even their representation.
A second immigration project that Dr. Brotherton is currently engaged in is “Social Anatomy of a Deportation Regime,” in which he collaborates with Graduate Center faculty to treat New York City – a sanctuary city, and the only city that guarantees representation to immigrant detainees – as a case study. The project aims to look at this problem from all angles and account for many perspectives.
The next commentator was Margaret Chin, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, who focused on the problem of “glass and bamboo ceilings” that stand in the way of Asian-Americans’ achieving educational equity in New York City. She emphasized the importance of taking race into account when designing programs, such as student tracking and race-conscious admissions.
Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, is the author of a number of books on immigration. During the briefing, she strove to correct immigration myths that are being spread by the president and members of his administration. First, that immigrants are criminals; in fact, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans (excepting immigration infractions), and cities and neighborhoods with higher concentrations of immigrant populations have lower rates of crime that comparable neighborhoods. Second, that today’s immigrant populations aren’t learning English; the “three-generation model” continues to be accurate in describing language-learning patterns in immigrant families. The United States can be called a “graveyard of languages” because immigrants tend to lose their native tongues in favor of English – typically by the third generation, individuals are mostly monolingual in English.
Debunking these myths, according to Dr. Foner, is important to reducing the hostility toward immigrants upon which the administration’s restrictive immigration agenda is predicated. She emphasized that social scientists and journalists alike have a responsibility to help publicize the truth about immigrants and their contributions to society.
According to Philip Kasinitz, a Presidential Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, the underlying strategy of the Trump Administration on immigration is difficult to understand, in that much of the policy is self-contradicting. He noted several key contradictions around the thinking on immigration today. For example, the current moral panic conflating immigrants, illegality and crime comes at a time when crime rates – particularly violent crime – is way down. Americans are also increasingly supportive of immigrants and their participation in society, but increasingly make a distinction between legal and illegal, creating a class of people involved socially, economically and culturally in our society but not politically, a fact that is, in his view, bad for a democratic society. Finally, Dr. Kasinitz talked about the generational factors behind a society that is increasingly diverse, but which at the same time harbors extreme anti-immigrant sentiments.
John Mollenkopf, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, also noted contradictions inherent to the views of an older, white segment of the population: their anxiety about allowing immigrants into the country is not in their economic best interests, as many are increasingly dependent on low-wage immigrant labor for their care. As a scholar of the acquisition and use of political power, Dr. Mollenkopf opined that the best way to limit the ability of Republicans in Congress to build a base around anti-immigrant sentiment is to mobilize the increasing numbers of immigrant-origin voters and bring new constituencies into the electorate. In New York City, for example, the majority of the electorate is of immigrant origin, but newer immigrants have not yet organized to develop the same amount of political influence as groups that have been in the United States in large numbers for longer.
The panel wrapped up with questions from the audience. In particular, the discussion touched on the movement to abolish or reform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an idea that has received some popular attention among Democrats in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections. Dr. Brotherton said that “a critical mass of people has disappeared” in Latin American and Central American communities, and immigrants across the country have changed their routines out of fear of the agency. Dr. Kasinitz clarified that, despite popular belief, the number of deportations has not risen; rather, the length of immigrant detentions has grown substantially due to a lack of capacity in immigration courts to process detainees. All agreed that more dramatic action or a greater groundswell of support for reform is needed to signal that ICE’s actions are not acceptable to a majority of Americans.
For more information about the immigration research coming out of the CUNY Graduate Center, please visit the GC Immigration page.