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ICE’s Bail Bonds and the Migrant Detention Industry

Marzena Zukowska, interviewed by Lucy McKeon
Zukowska grew up undocumented in the US, an experience that politicized her. Today, her writing and organizing centers on immigrant rights.

On October 27, 2020, we published Marzena Zukowska’s “How ICE’s Bail Bond Scheme Lets Corporations Profit Off Migrants,” adapted from her contribution to Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, a collection of essays about how every aspect of asylum and immigration processes is increasingly profit-driven.

In her essay, Zukowska reports on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bail bonds, a growing trend, parallel to the criminal bail system, in which corporate interests extract profit from detained immigrants. Bail is regularly denied by immigration judges to those they deem a danger—frequently, a judgment of coded racial bias. “For those who do manage to obtain bail, later securing a refund can take years,” Zukowska writes. “As of July 31, 2018, ICE held a staggering $204 million in unreturned bond money.”

Siobhán Mcguirk

Marzena Zukowska

I asked how Zukowska, whose writing and organizing centers on immigrant rights, came to focus on bail bonds, not often the subject of mainstream reporting more focused on the detention facilities run by private companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group. “Even I, who have been active in the movement for a long time, had to do significant research, interviewing activists like Jamila Hammami, founder of Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) and Gabriela Marquez-Benitez of Detention Watch Network (DWN), to bring this article into fruition,” she answered by email. “The topic of people seeking asylum, as I learned from Asylum for Sale’s co-editor Siobhán McGuirk, tends to be dominated by questions of morality and deservingness. Bail bonds sidestep this by revealing people with deep financial interests finding creative (and perverse) ways to profit from immigrant communities.

“Organizations like DWN and QDEP,” she continued, “as well as Mijente and the #AbolishICE movement, have been ringing the alarm bells about bail bonds for a long time, calling on universities, churches, and philanthropies to divest from these corporations.”

Understanding the connection between the prison-industrial complex and the newer migrant detention industry is essential, Zukowska said: “There’s a reason why Angela Davis declared immigrant rights one of the most important struggles of our time. It’s not just abolishing prisons, it’s about abolishing all cages, including those that come in the form of a $60,000 bail bond or a $3,950 ankle monitor.”

After working as director of media at the National Domestic Workers Alliance—“NDWA has always been close to home for me,” Zukowska told me, “because my mom was a domestic worker and did housecleaning for more than twenty years”—she remains on the leadership team of the Radical Communicators Network, founded by Shanelle Matthews with, Zukowska said, “the recognition that the progressive movement or ‘the left’ needs to tell better stories if we’re going to actually win elections.

Zukowska moved to London in 2018, following the US midterm elections, and intended to take a step back from organizing. “But then I met this amazing group of Polish feminists, and it felt like a homecoming,” she said. With Magda Fabianczyk, Zukowska founded Polish Migrants Organise for Change (POMOC), a grassroots nonprofit that works to foster collaboration and solidarity between Polish women living in the UK and other migrant communities and communities of color. Last year, ahead of Poland’s parliamentary elections, they worked as part of the larger Polonia Głosuje  coalition on a “Get Out the Vote” campaign. Today, POMOC is campaigning against the abortion ban in Poland.

Angela Christofilou

Zukowska at a protest against the abortion ban in Poland, London, October 24, 2020

If Joe Biden is elected president, immigration rights activists will need to apply pressure on the new administration. Besides an end to the detention of migrants, Zukowska’s second recommendation would be to reverse a Trump administration policy currently underway that moves to outsource deportation to foreign states labeled “safe third countries.”

“Ironically, the states in question are Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, all places where US foreign policy interventions (from supporting military coups to trade deals) have forced millions to flee,” she said. “Adrienne Pine, one of the editors of Asylum for Sale, talks a lot about this dangerous pattern of international deportation outsourcing, which we’ve seen in other places like Australia and the UK.”

Zukowska grew up undocumented in the US, an experience that politicized her. “It’s the reason I do the work that I do,” she said. “I immigrated to Chicago from Poland with my mom and my brother when I was six. For the next fourteen years, I lived in a sort of limbo, as more than eleven million people still do in the US. I was lucky enough to get a Green Card and then citizenship through my mother, who is my biggest inspiration. I also recognize that being white and undocumented came with a different set of privileges from those for people who are Black or Brown or living at the highly militarized southern border.

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“My brother is still undocumented,” she went on, “and it’s one of the most painful realities to be an immigrant rights activist and feel powerless to help your own family.” Her stepfather, who was active in Poland’s Solidarity Movement and had to flee the authoritarian regime in the 1980s, is a US Green Card holder. “He was born in Germany after the war, as the child of a white Polish woman and a Black American soldier,” Zukowska said. “And in the 1940s, both the Polish and US government determined that it was safer for a Black child to grow up in war-ravaged Poland than in Jim Crow America. He’s been in the US for forty years and still can’t get citizenship.

“This is why organizing and collective action, to me personally, is so critical. It’s how we fight back.”

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