I, Daniel Blake Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

“I, Daniel Blake” is a moving look at the quagmire that is the welfare system, breaking through the callousness of glib terms like “welfare queen.” There is no crown or glory in battling an amorphic bureaucracy for something as basic as one’s right to exist and live.

British comedian Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle, UK, who is seeking public assistance while recovering from a major heart attack. He must navigate a byzantine system of two hour customer disservice calls, forms, inane questions and resume workshops. Though his many encounters with the public servants (the irony of this term will not escape you after this movie) are nothing short of tragic, Daniel still manages to inject comedy─for example, when asked if he is able to relay simple information in a conversation, he wryly responds to the clerk, “Clearly not, based on the questions you are asking me.” When his benefits are denied, he is told he has to return back to work even though his physician does not allow it. So, he is forced to keep applying to jobs he can’t actually take, while simply awaiting his right to appeal. The administration keeps promising him a call from an omnipotent “decision-maker”─again, the nomenclature is quite apt.

Subjected to humiliation, including having to sell all of his furniture, so he would have something to eat, and walking around in his house with a blanket wrapped around him because it is so cold, Daniel somehow still manages to hold on to his decency. He starts helping Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two kids who are in similar dire straits. Katie is in a state of ceaseless worry, crying in hiding when her kids go to sleep at night. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, she tears open a can of beans and scoops them into her mouth with her hands at the government food pantry because she has been starving herself to give to her kids. She then keeps apologizing, as though the degradation she has been subjected to is somehow her fault.

Director Ken Loach keeps “I, Daniel Blake” light on the polemics, instead allowing the powerful performances of Johns and Squires to shine. The subject matter is heavy, but a droll sense of humor prevents the film from being onerous and bleak. When Dan draws graffiti on the welfare administration building, writing, “I, Daniel Blake, would like an appeal date before I starve and change the shite music on the phones,” he is commenting on the very absurdity of a system that refuses to recognize his humanity. The graffiti is his selfhood writ large. His empty flat, with just a phone sitting on the floor, awaiting a decision-maker Godot who never comes, is a poignant take on the precarity that is the daily life of so many.

Peter and the Farm Movie Review

My review for the Eagle newspaper

Title notwithstanding, Peter and the Farm is a documentary about Peter and, as an afterthought, his farm. If you are looking for pastoral poesy, this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a bird’s eye-view of a farmer’s life, well, this is not it either. A film about a curmudgeonly, self-obsessed man who is not particularly likeable? Most definitely.

Director Tony Scott follows 68-year-old Peter Dunning’s life on his farm in Vermont. Considering the setting, there is surprisingly little insight about farming per se. The viewers do get some exposure to the back-breaking grind that it is, for example, to make bales of hay with machinery that breaks down daily. This scene will disabuse you of any ideas about the neatness of those bales.

There is a great deal of visceral footage, quite literally. There is a blood-and-gore-and-viscera scene of Peter slaughtering a sheep—selling organic meats at the local farmer’s market is how Peter earns a living as a farmer. The shot, however, is incredibly gratuitous. One has to wonder why Scott even included it. Speaking of which, this is a question viewers might have many times throughout this film; yes, this is supposed to be a stream of consciousness opus, but about half of the film is Peter’s mumbling through tenuously connected stories and non-sequiturs. A more stern editing hand would have been a boon to this film.

Peter and the Farm suffers from too contrived of an attempt to be arthouse and instead simply ends up…arty. A scene in which Scott zooms in on the dead face of a coyote Peter has killed is unabashedly “oh, look how deep and metaphorical this is.” Except that it is not. In attempting to take us down the rabbit hole that is Peter’s life as an alcoholic, the film’s atmosphere captures the same heavy quagmire and nightmare that Peter is suffering through. In other words, the drudgery of Peter’s life is unloaded on the viewers, who must also begrudgingly get through the film.

Peter, an artist and poet of sorts, has lost all four children and his three wives to his alcoholism. While his despair and depression is palpable, it is hard to muster up pathos when he spends the entire film railing, howling and lashing out. It is hard to feel sympathy when we are presented with exactly how he has pushed everyone away from him. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my sh*t, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair. I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm,” he bemoans. This statement is one of the most poignant revelations of the film—that the farm is all that is left for this man.

Peter and the Farm succeeds in giving the viewer access inside the harrowing,  quotidian existence of one particular farmer. While broader social commentary is lacking, it is, nevertheless, compelling in that it dispels romanticized ideas of bucolic paradises and other idylls of this ilk.

Grade: C

Goat Movie Review

My review of Goat for the Eagle

Lord of The Flies meets Stanford Prison Experiment may be an apt characterization of Goat, an exposé on fraternity hazing. Based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, Goat gets elbow-deep into the heady, terrifying mix of masculinity and violence. The movie asks why the two are in such close fraternity, especially in the context of the Greek system.

The film is unsettling and visceral, perhaps all the more because it is based on actual events. Brett (Nick Jonas) and Brad (Ben Schnetzer) are two brothers from Ohio. Brett, the slightly older of the two, is already a member of Phi Sigma Mu. After one of Mu’s parties, Brad is carjacked, robbed, and brutally beaten by two “townies” (as the film calls them). The attack becomes the unstated epicenter around which the rest of the film revolves. When the police ask Brad why he didn’t fight back if the attackers had no guns, Brad finds himself wondering if he was a “pussy” by not fighting back. The audience gets a poignant glimpse into the dangerous assumptions about the use of violence to establish masculinity.

Masculinity, or should we say hyper masculinity, erupts and seethes in every moment of the film. Shirts are in great dearth; so is talking at normal volume or abstaining from drinking, rather drinking to the point of poisoning oneself. More noteworthy, however, are the humiliations that are part of Hell Week, which involve the threat of having to copulate with a goat (hence, the name), being urinated on, touching feces, threats of forced fellatio, mud wrestling etc. Ironically enough, this is terribly homoerotic fodder, yet calling the pledges “faggots” is still meant to underline that this is something they are most definitely not. There is little reprieve from the onslaught of masculinity on the screen—the only female characters are women who (willingly, at least in the film) participate in one-night stands with the fraternity members. They are peripheral in every sense.

There is an ever present and palpable threatening thrum throughout everything the fraternity does—when they party, the excess is so overwhelming that the only thing that comes to mind is what one does when one laughs to keep from crying. It’s the kind of partying you do when you try to convince everyone just how great of a time you are having, truth be damned. Dubstep booms; people are sprayed with alcohol—it is so much fun! In a rather memorable cameo, James Franco is the frat alum who can’t seem to leave behind the good ol’ college days. He is like the much angrier version of Matthew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused.

Brohood abounds; brotherhood—not so much. One is hard-pressed to see the lauded brotherhood in Phi Sigma Mu’s members; instead the atmosphere is one of dominance and submission. Goat, however, asks some rather probing questions. Why would a nerdy, nice guy type like Will Fitch, Brad’s roommate, endure being pelted with rotten fruit to the point of getting a concussion to be a part of a group of meatheads? Much like a gang, leaving a fraternity is not like dropping a class. The fraternity confers a certain social cache that is really important in a small school, like the one in the movie. Fitch points out, quite correctly, that “they” are everywhere. And the bullying that comes along with “them” is omnipresent as well.

Peer pressure, as portrayed in Goat, is intensely animalistic and overwhelming. This pressure is a far cry from “Bro, have another beer.” The intensity is almost military-like, which is quite eloquently portrayed in a scene where one of the pledge masters takes a picture referencing the infamous one from Abu Ghraib prison of himself stepping on the naked backs of all the pledges.

Director Andrew Neel superbly allows us behind the curtain of something we have heard and read about but have likely never seen. To watch the rituals is harrowing. Yet, there is a multi-dimensionality to the characters, especially of the two brothers. Brad and Brett’s love for each other belies cartoonish characterizations. For all the talk of brotherhood, the realest example of it is not to be found in an “Animal House.” The film also steers clear of judging the Greek system, instead focusing on just one aspect of it—initiation.

Goat succeeds in portraying something plucked straight from the headlines authentically, so it doesn’t stay all Greek to us.

Morris from America Movie Review

My review of Morris from America for The Eagle

Morris from America is this summer’s Dope. Thoroughly winsome and immeasurably feel-good, it follows the life of a father and son adjusting to life in Heidelberg, Germany. This is precisely what is so incredibly refreshing about Morris from America — it is a coming-of-age movie about hip hop, set in Germany. A pretty novel premise, indeed.

13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) follows his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), when he moves to a strange land so he can work as a soccer coach. Morris doesn’t speak German particularly well, but he speaks the universal lingua franca of hip hop. This, we find, is all he needs to know. Hip hop is what allows Morris to relate to his dad and defy his own feelings of not fitting in.

Chad Hartigan directs this movie with an excellent sense of pacing–bright colors abound, propelled by the sounds of EDM with laughs sprinkled in effortlessly. There is no pandering or didacticism. Morris’ character develops from the stereotypical perma-scowling, thinking-all-adults-are-lame teenager to a much more nuanced character. In fact, it is the exchanges between him and his father that really carry the film. Craig Robinson is comedic gold in just about every line he delivers; their banter about who is the best hip hop artist and why is incredibly amusing. Curtis is truly relatable as a single dad who is trying to build a life for his family in an unfamiliar place but is just as out of place as his son. As he puts it, “we are the only two brothers in Heidelberg.”

Speaking of which, Morris from America wryly and subtly pokes fun at the stereotypes still affecting the characters, yet the issues Morris faces are not racism per se but perhaps more general cultural misunderstandings. For example, the kids at the youth center assume Morris must be good at basketball because he is African-American. When one of the counselors asks Morris whether a joint he found in the woods is his, Morris exasperatedly responds, “Why don’t you ask the other kids!?” The counselor’s response, comically enough, is almost, “yes, why didn’t I think of that?” It could have been a tense moment but threat and negativity is mercifully absent in this feel-good film.

Then there is “the girl” (as Morris’ Dad says, “there always is a girl”). 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) is Morris’ ticket out of social exclusion. She is cool, beautiful and has a famous DJ boyfriend. She is always inviting Morris to parties (which hilariously, Morris first hears as “bodies”). Sure, she sometimes makes fun of him too, but their very platonic relationship is the vehicle that allows him to finally take the spotlight, quite literally, and deliver a jaw-dropping freestyle.

Morris from America is effortlessly ebullient–which is incredibly amusing when one considers how much time Morris initially spends sulking. Without going for cheap laughs, it will leave the audience beaming nevertheless.

Grade: A

Equity Review

My review of the film Equity for The Eagle

f the women in the film Equity are the “She-Wolves of Wall Street,” the men may well be the hyenas, sneakily feasting on the carrion of the wolves’ spoils. Director Meera Menon offers a female perspective on the epitome of a bastion of male domination. Equity upends the very underpinnings of the financial thriller genre—the glorification (and conflation) of greed and power and the lionization of the “ol’ boy network” as the only interesting and significant players. Like The Big Short and Margin Call, Equity lets us look under the hood of the Wall Street machine, exposing the lifeblood to be as much “scoop” and “perceptions” as it is cold hard facts. The film asks, “Why are women not allowed to like money and to enjoy power?”, Or better yet, as Anne-Marie Slaughter asked, “Why Can’t Women Still Can’t Have It All,” (which, cheekily enough, is actually referenced in the movie).

Naomi Bishop, played with steely intensity by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, is an investment banker adept in helping companies go public. Yet, despite her formidable portfolio, she is only as good as her last IPO, which was not particularly successful. Her smarmy boss’ explanation for why she won’t be getting a promotion is “the perception” that she “rubbed people the wrong way” on her last IPO and that this is “not her year”—very objective criteria, you see. So much for Wall Street’s reliance on data and not emotions. Determined to prove herself (how many times over!?), Naomi sets her sights on Cache, a social network that prides itself on its privacy controls. Unfortunately, there are far too many egos to coddle and no one in Naomi’s circle can be trusted personally or professionally.

Equity’s plot alone is certainly compelling and filled with the kind of tension viewers expect from the genre. The way in which the film provokes the audience into questioning assumptions about gender roles and the corporate environment, however, is its greatest asset. Naomi’s right hand woman Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s producers) finds out she is pregnant. In one particularly memorable scene, Erin, in the middle of her ultrasound, wants to take a client’s phone call. Her husband pointedly rebukes her, telling her that the client would want Erin to “enjoy her sonogram.”

The film aims to make the viewers squirm and it does so with great aplomb, putting front and center so many of the assumptions about women and making the viewer question them not only in the context of the film but also in one’s response to their portrayal in the film. Meta indeed. This is what is so incredibly ground-breaking about the film–why are we made uncomfortable by Erin’s attitude toward her pregnancy as a nuisance that will ruin her career? Why do we assume Naomi wants to be single and childless and never notice the sacrifices she has made to get to play with the big boys? Why do we assume that women are not supposed to like money?

The way the men are portrayed in Equity is also quite interesting–one gets the sense that like hyenas, they stand by, awaiting to feast on the hard work of others. They are incredibly chauvinistic, paternalistic, but mostly bumbling and terribly inept. The head of Cache, the IPO Naomi launches, is the ubiquitous tech bro, more interested in eating expensive sushi with beautiful women than anything else. In her personal relationship with an investment banker, Naomi’s character shines as the kind of woman we rarely see in films–guarded with business matters and not quick to brag or tell anyone that will listen to her business, literally. The cause of her downfall is not the usual gullibility or lack of foresight–it is people betraying her or not trusting her. We get the sense that while Wall Street is a game, Naomi still plays by its rules. The ones seeking to break them are the men who created them.

Equity also excels is in portraying the process of a company going public in accessible, layman terms. In that sense, it also shows just how reliant the stock world is on gossip, hearsay, hunches, “perceptions,” and tips–the irony is not lost on the viewer, as these are the very things that have been labeled to be the hallmark of the “feminine.”

The film truly shines in upending commonly-held ideas about heroes and antiheroes…or should we say heroines. The women of Wall Street may inhabit a world utterly unfamiliar to us, but the way in which they are forced to navigate around the roadblocks constantly placed in their path will not be. If the film is feminist, it certainly does not blare its politics through a megaphone. The very existence of Naomi on Wall Street is already incredibly impactful and Equity shatters the glass ceiling of everything you might believe about them.

Grade: A

Les Cowboys Review

My review for The Eagle

Les Cowboys riffs on John Ford’s The Searchers in a modern-day take on the story of a father looking for his lost daughter. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s previous films Le Prophete and Rust and Bone showcased the same subdued yet visceral ethos that he brings to his directorial debut here.

The film opens at a country-western fair in France, in 1995. Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife, and two kids, Kelly and Georges/Kid, are the epitome of the wholesome family. The person who rides off into the sunset is no valiant cowboy, however, but Alain’s sixteen-year-old daughter Kelly. In the original film, the “bad guys” are the Comanches (racism found its way into cowboys movies, too). Bidegain’s Les Cowboys centers on “the Other” of present day–”radical” Muslims.

As Alain begins to search for Kelly, he discovers her notebooks (filled with Islamic propaganda) and finds out she has run away with her boyfriend Ahmed (whom they did not even know existed). What is especially mesmerizing about the film is that the suspense does not come from wondering if the father will find his daughter–very early on in the film, Kelly sends the family a letter asking them not to look for her and that she has chosen this life for herself.

So, we know immediately this will not be a more cerebral Taken or a whodunit. Alain’s all-consuming obsession with finding Kelly is what is most poignant and engrossing; his pain and bewilderment are palpable. Played with firebrand intensity by Francois Damiens, we see the same ardent love a father feels for his daughter transformed into an equally devouring, Don Quixotian quest that incinerates everything in its path–Alain, too, in the most literal sense. Alain goes everywhere from Syria to Yemen and Amsterdam, a broken man trying to find a broken bond. When a smuggler tells him that his daughter is not his daughter anymore, we can see how true yet utterly hollow that rings to a father.

9/11 happens and Georges/Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), Kelly’s brother, starts working for a relief organization in Afghanistan, secretly hoping to run into her somehow. John C. Reilly makes a (somewhat comedic) appearance as an American mercenary. The cadence of Les Cowboys is certainly compelling; the plot unfurls at an engrossing clip. The way traditional western film tropes are translated into the present is also quite creative. Kid, unlike his father, doesn’t want to pull Kelly away from her new life. He simply wants to see her and make sure she is alright. The final scene packs a stunningly emotional wallop, sans any words exchanged.

Les Cowboys will haunt you long after it’s over, and not because of what it states outright but because of what it implies. The dialogue is minimal to non-existent, yet the actors are able to educe a lyricality from their characters that is eloquent beyond any words. Alain’s character is stoic, like a true cowboy, but he is not one-dimensional.

The film also obliquely addresses racism and Islamophobia by pulling it out of the shadows, without commenting on it. In one scene, a man tells Alain that “now that you see how we live, you understand what has happened”–Alain gets enraged that the man is trying to engage him in some sort of a political discussion when all he cares about is Kelly and nothing else. The scene speaks volumes about how hatred also grows out of thin air–we don’t get the sense that Alain holds any prejudices until the fruitless quest that saps everything from him leads him to the point of calling the people he encounters “ragheads.”

Les Cowboys chooses to stay mum on politics, yet Kelly’s character who voluntarily chooses to leave her Western lifestyle behind, also offers a trenchant perspective that belies the broad-strokes stereotype of “brain-washed” and “abducted” women as the only ones who join radical Islamists. Nevertheless, just because it lacks in histrionics, it is no less moving. Les Cowboys does not ride off easily into the sunset without jostling you awake first and making you question the difference between good and bad guys and searches and crusades.

 

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries

AFTER SPRING

Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED

Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.

TEMPESTAD

Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

The Man Who Knew Infinity Review

My review for The Eagle

The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of the math genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan who is famous for making groundbreaking contributions to theoretical mathematics.

Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t fail in making formula-writing into riveting plot material. It fails in the ways that a lot of the “genius genre” films do: oscillating between melodrama and unbridled wide-eyed “oh, aren’t you impressed” theatrics. The authenticity rings hollow and the film falls victim to many overused tropes–namely the “obscurity to recognition” trajectory of geniuses and the fact that only the West is deemed authoritative enough to recognize geniuses.

Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a self-taught mathematician living in India, barely scraping by as an accounting clerk. In his spare time, he writes formulas for ideas such as the number of partitions a number has, with the number growing to infinity. He writes a letter with his work to G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a mathematician at Trinity College in Cambridge. Hardy is so impressed by Ramanujan that he summons him to England to learn more about his theories.

The relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan is easily the most compelling part of the film, as the audience hardly gets to know much about Ramanujan other than his work. Ramanujan credits divine inspiration for his incalculable formulas—he says it’s intuition that things are right is all he needs. Hardy is presented as an atheist who couldn’t possibly grasp the mystical ways of Hinduism.

This precisely is the issue with the film—you won’t have to look far for “Orientalist” overtones, ad infinitum. Ramanujan’s spirituality is presented clumsily, replete with elephant Ganesha statues and all sorts of reductionistic motifs. He is made to look provincial in mind—merely the vessel for genius bestowed from up above.

The colonial mentality of England is presented surprisingly well, on the other hand. Everyone, but a few people like Hardy, make little effort to hide their disdain for Ramanujan’s Indian origin and humble beginnings. Micro aggressions, including not being allowed to step on the grass at Cambridge, abound.

Jeremy Irons plays Hardy beautifully, as a man wanting to help Ramanujan but perhaps too timid in facing down the pervasive racism leveled at his protégé. He publishes Ramanujan’s work and seeks to get him a fellowship but not once does he actually ever address the colonial mentality espoused by his colleagues—he simply, and formulaically, advocates for Ramanujan as a mathematician, not as a person.

Dev Patel, too, stays mired in playing Ramanujan as a bumbling country bumpkin; tall, gawky and impossibly awkward in every sense. All he wants, he says, is to publish and to get people to read his work, the scope of which is mind-boggling. In a true genius sense, he can’t be bothered with Hardy’s pedantics of proving theories.

The viewers are made to feel as though he has so many ideas bursting forth, it is all he can do to keep up with even so much as recording them. But the person gets lost in the formulas. We never understand, for example, much about his love for his wife, whom he left behind in India. We get little nuancing of him other than as a repository for other-worldly ideas. In the midst of all of this, mawkishness abounds… soft lighting and Indian sitar strains do, too.

Grade: B+

Nasser’s Republic Review

My review of Nasser’s Republic, a part of Filmfest DC, for the Washington City Paper

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the very embodiment of the proverbial “charismatic leader” you read about in political science textbooks, but Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt steers clear of breathless paean-singing. Instead, the film captures the process of shaking colonialism’s chains and building a nation. It also offers a very comprehensive look at the anti-Western, pan-Arabism movement, showing Nasser as equally pragmatic and idealistic. The themes Nasser’s Republic tackles are big, yet the film is able to give a panoramic view of the issues of nationalizing an economy, gaining public support, contending with the Muslim Brotherhood, and wrestling with the thorny issue of what democratization and nation building actually looks like. Through interviews with Nasser’s daughter and a number of scholars and journalists, a portrait of a doggedly hard-working leader emerges. Nasser’s political milieu turns out to be not too terribly different from modern-day Egypt’s, and as such, it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in how a country moves from colonialism—and its effects—into autonomy. But sometimes autonomy can devolve into autocracy, and that’s something Nasser’s Republic does not shy away from exploring.

Immcarceration: Examining America’s Immigration Detention System (A Three Part Series)

Published here.

While America’s problems with excessive incarceration have received increased attention, until recently, immigration detention has been conspicuously absent from this discussion. In the wake of each year, about 400,000 people are placed in immigration detention. On any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps at least 34,000 immigrants incarcerated while they await a hearing with an immigration judge. This arbitrary (and incredibly high) number is mainly attributable to the so-called “detention-bed mandate,” an arbitrary quota set by Congress that ICE needs to meet. The quota is written into the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Congress requires the agency to “maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds” at any given time. The quota, first enacted in 2007, is an oppressive aberration—no other federal agency is required to detain a certain number of people.

This is the first of a three part series by Antoaneta Tileva examining immigration detention in these United States.

Unlike detention in the criminal-justice context, immigration custody does not have a punitive function, but is designed to ensure that immigrants appear at their hearings and/or can be successfully deported after a final order of removal. The government’s justification for family detention has also hinged on its importance as a deterrent to illegal immigration. Despite its supposedly non-punitive function, nearly all of the over 350 detention facilities are built and run on a corrections model. Billion-dollar companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group run almost 62% of these immigration jails. The quota is costing taxpayers in excess of $2 billion each year when alternative community-based programs have a strong track record of success, at a much lower cost.

The human suffering caused by the policy of incarceration is a trenchant commentary on the real toll hidden behind its euphemistic, glib characterization of “detention.” Family separation and the resultant care and economic insecurity deeply scars individuals and communities; detainee abuse such as denial of water, medical treatment, adequate nutrition, or physical safety is far too rampant and, even worse, ignored.

While noncitizens in removal proceedings have the right to be represented by counsel at their own expense, many detention facilities are located in remote areas making it difficult for detainees to seek an attorney. On average, 84% of detained immigrants go through proceedings without legal representation. The detention bed quota contributes to the number of people who must go through removal proceedings unrepresented.

In many respects, immigrant detainees are treated less favorably than criminal defendants. U.S. mandatory detention laws cover broad categories of non-citizens, including lawful permanent residents (LPRs), asylum-seekers, petty offenders, and persons with U.S. families and other strong and longstanding ties to the United States. Sixty percent of the unauthorized have resided in the United States for 10 years or more and 17 percent for at least 20 years (Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Center for Migration Studies). Most criminal defendants receive custody hearings by judicial officers shortly after their apprehension and they can be released subject to conditions that will reasonably ensure their court appearance and protect the public—this is not the case with immigrant detainees.       

The US immigrant detention system grew more than fivefold between 1994 and 2013. The number of persons detained annually increased from roughly 85,000 persons in 1995 to 440,557 in 2013 (Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Center for Migration Studies). Since the beginning of the Obama administration’s detention reform initiative in 2009, annual detention numbers have reached record levels. More persons pass through the U.S. immigrant detention system each year than through federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. In 2012, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detained a record 477,523 adult noncitizens. Since the Obama Administration announced its detention reform initiative in 2009, the number of noncitizens DHS detains yearly has increased by nearly 25 percent.  Since passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIIRIRA) in 1996, it has expanded over fivefold. The chart below, by the Center for Migration Studies, illustrates the precipitous increase in both detentions and removals.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required ICE to increase, in each fiscal year from 2006 to 2010, the number of immigration detention beds available by 8,000 above the preceding fiscal year’s number. ICE was under the pressure to not only increase the requirement but use it. In February 2006, then Assistant Secretary of ICE Julie Myers Wood met with then Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), John Culberson (R-TX), and Judge John Carter (R-TX). In that meeting, Representatives Culberson and Carter highlighted that “detention facilities in Laredo are only one-third full,” and that there are “hundreds of empty beds.” Chairman Rogers noted that as one of his “key issues,” he wanted “no empty beds.”

The use of arbitrary numerical goals escalated in 2009 when Congress began formally including the national bed quota in annual appropriations bills. Since then, the detention bed quota has been written into the DHS Appropriations Act, which states, “funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.” In addition to requiring that ICE maintain the physical capacity to detain at least 34,000 people at any time, many members of Congress have urged ICE to interpret this language to require that all detention beds be in use at all times—that is, that a minimum of 34,000 beds not only be funded, but also filled, every day.

Over time, congressional frustration over empty beds has grown. In April 2015, after a heated exchange with ICE Director Sarah Saldaña, Representative John Culberson (R-TX) suggested that the current quota language be altered to replace the word “maintain” with “fill.” Congressional staff have also repeatedly, if incorrectly, told ICE that keeping an average of at least 34,000 detained per day is a statutory requirement (“Banking on Detention” 2). Former ICE Director John Sandweg expressed this frustration in a September 2013 interview with Bloomberg, saying that “having a mandate out there that says you have to detain a certain number – regardless of how many folks are a public safety threat or threaten the integrity of the system – doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. You need the numbers to drive the detention needs, not set an arbitrary number that then drives your operation.”

Guaranteed minimums predate the national quota’s inception and have existed at least since 2003. Their establishment can be best explained in the context of the private prison industry’s past instability and its voracious pursuit of guaranteed profit. In 1984, CCA built the first private prison in the U.S., the Houston Processing Center, an immigration detention center in Houston, TX. Although the private prison system has grown considerably since then, in the late 1990s, the industry lost steam as CCA almost went bankrupt and the stock of Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now GEO) fell significantly. After being bailed out by the now-defunct hedge fund Lehman Brothers, the private prison industry saw the government’s post-9/11 interest in expanding immigration detention as a potential cash cow and began vying for more federal contracts to incarcerate immigrants.

Revitalized after the period of crisis, the private prison industry moved to secure its future by pursuing the incorporation of guaranteed minimums into contracts. CCA’s 2003 contract for the Houston Processing Center was one of the first to include a guaranteed minimum, this one for 375 persons. Since then, an increasing number of contracts between ICE and private contractors for detention or detention-related services have included guaranteed minimums. These guarantees act as taxpayer-funded insurance for private companies against any changes in immigration enforcement policy or prioritization, because the companies are paid regardless of how many individuals ICE detains. Guaranteed minimums have now spread to every type of immigration detention facility.

Even DHS recognized the injustice and absurdity behind this system. In testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security’s hearing on the President’s FY 2014 budget, DHS then-Secretary Janet Napolitano called the bed quota “artificial” and stated that, “We ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not an arbitrary number.” In May 2015, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized the bed quota by saying that “People go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis. That just makes no sense at all to me. That’s not the way we should be running any detention facility”. On June 17, 2015, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced the Protecting Taxpayers and Communities from Local Detention Quotas Act (H.R. 2808). The bill seeks to end the practice of including guaranteed bed minimums in immigration detention contracts.

Despite public outrage at the quota, The House Committee on Appropriations passed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act for 2016. The accompanying Committee report increased the bed quota to 34,040 average daily detention beds: 31,280 for adults at an estimated cost of $123.54 per bed and 2,760 family detention beds at an estimated daily cost of $342.73.

Who benefits from this quota is at the crux of this issue. For-profit private prisons, which get compensated per bed, hold more than half of all immigration detainees. Even a small reduction in the quota would impact their profits. Immigrant detention has become a huge business. It costs a staggering $2 billion a year to incarcerate enough people to satisfy the quota—a figure that represents approximately 40 percent of ICE’s $5.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2014. Put another way, the cost of the quota is equal to the entire annual budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Sixty-two percent of all ICE beds are now run by private prison contractors, meaning for-profit prison companies operate nine of the ten largest immigrant detention centers in the country — eight of those ten are run by CCA or GEO Group. As their share of the immigrant-detention market has grown in recent years so have the companies’ profits CCA’s profits went from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014, while the GEO Group’s profits made a staggering 244 percent jump during that time period from $41.8 million to $143.8 million.

A 2014 investors presentation from CCA illustrates the incentive to push for every single ICE bed to be filled: “filling vacant beds would add ≈ $1.00 to [Earnings Per Share] & [Adjusted Funds From Operations] per share,” the company wrote. In a recent company filing, GEO wrote that efforts to reform the immigration system, which could put thousands of undocumented immigrants on the path to legalization, may harm the company’s bottom line: “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.” Both companies have expanded to build centers for detaining asylum-seeking immigrant families in Texas. In 2014, GEO opened the Karnes County Residential Center southeast of San Antonio, where 600 women and children, most of whom have fled violence in Central America, are being held (GEO plans to expand capacity to 1,200 detainees). Two hunger strikes have erupted in the facility due to reprehensible treatment of the detainees.

Not surprisingly, the industry is an avid lobbyist. One private-prison company, for instance, spent more than $13 million between 2005 and 2013 on lobbying. With combined annual revenues in the billions, Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation can afford it. In 2014 alone, they spent nearly $2 million lobbying Congress, and individuals from these companies gave well over $500,000 to congressional candidates as well. Federal political giving from the three largest companies favors Republicans in most cycles. For MTC in 2014, 61 percent of the $46,500 it gave to federal candidates went to Republicans; for GEO, it was 72 percent of the $230,111 it contributed. CCA showed the starkest preference, giving 85 percent of its $267,464 in donations to Republican candidates.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.