By Molly Bangs, Director and Ashley Underwood, Senior Researcher | November 3, 2021 Blog Post

Today, we are proud to launch Light Inside, a research-based campaign shedding light on the government agencies and contractors that can either protect, or deny, human and reproductive rights for people in the United States, with a focus on people who are detained and/or incarcerated under the Biden-Harris administration.

Light Inside features research on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). It is Equity Forward’s third campaign holding federal agencies accountable, following HHS Watch, which features research on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Global Spotlight, which features research on global-facing agencies including the State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (UN). HHS Watch and Global Spotlight were launched during the Trump administration and relaunched with a new coding system on President Biden’s inauguration day. Light Inside follows the same model, and our research team will apply the same methodology and level of scrutiny to appointees and their policies within DHS and DOJ, with a foremost focus at the intersection of immigrant and reproductive justice.

While the campaigns are similar in many ways, containing profiles on officials, descriptions of the offices within the agencies and the policies, Light Inside differs from HHS Watch and Global Spotlight given the systems within which DHS and DOJ operate—namely, the U.S. immigration and justice systems. It is a different task to investigate personnel and policy within an agency that must exist, such as the nation’s federal health department, which houses the offices overseeing everything from pandemic response to administering Title X family planning grants, and one that should not, such as DHS—a relatively new agency founded after 9/11 to criminalize primarily people of color seeking entry to the United States. If there ever were agencies to focus on regardless of who is in the White House, it would be the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. Both agencies assert control over reproductive health and rights and engage in consistent and disturbing patterns of neglect, harm and abuse that cannot be attributed to a single administration or person.

We expand on the history of DHS in our recent research report, Cruelty and Control: Reproductive Rights and Health Care in the U.S. Immigration System. DOJ has intersecting roles with DHS in upholding the U.S. immigration system, as well. While Biden DOJ appointees have been better at fighting to uphold the constitutional right to abortion in the face of grave threats to access to reproductive health care, we only need to remember as recently as a year ago when the very same agency was compromised under the Trump administration to understand the depths of structural issues comprising the justice system. Our profiles on the Light Inside campaign, therefore, should be viewed in this context—we are tracking personnel and its policy so long as the immigration and justice systems remain intact, not because we endorse the positions or agency structures. 

As such, all of the DHS personnel profiled so far have been categorized as red or yellow. This categorization reflects the agencies’ participation in an immigration system which flouts international law regarding the right to asylum and upholds racist and xenophobic policies which deny the humanity of im/migrants, particularly those from the Global South. Admittedly there have been some tracked personnel who engaged in meaningful immigrant justice work earlier in their careers. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is an example of someone whose confirmation was celebrated by many rights based groups and accordingly received a green rating from us. However, his enforcement of Title 42 and handling of Haitian im/migrants at the Southern border have warranted a yellow categorization. It is clear that there are some officials, such as Mayorkas, who are undoubtedly operating under the “changing system from within” mentality. However, it is also clear that it is nearly impossible to accept incremental changes to the current system as progress. We are now a year out from the election, and the Biden administration has not made good on campaign promises to reform the United States’ inhumane immigration system. The administration’s adoption of progressive talking points is undermined by its continued enforcement of regressive policies and its sluggish action towards introducing innovative policy solutions pitched by those who are immersed in the work of im/migrant justice.

Another highlight of Light Inside is our inclusion of private subcontractors. We made this move with the understanding that so much of the carceral state is outsourced to private companies through government contracts, including the majority of detention facility inspections. Much of the staff charged with providing medical care are employed by  private contractors. The facilities themselves, excluding the beds and jails leased from local governments, are owned by private contractors. In short, mass incarceration is big business—and since Equity Forward exists to investigate government malfeasance and misspending, we decided it was imperative that we scrutinize and research private contractors in this campaign.   

People in custody and under surveillance of DHS and DOJ sub-agencies are on the receiving end of a system that flourishes on reproductive oppression, government malfeasance, and unethical practices. This work became a central focus for us last year with our blog Bad Apples Cannot Explain ICE’s Forced Sterilization, and as we dug deeper into the intersections of immigrant and reproductive justice, our research showed us how representative the carceral system is of all systemic injustice in the world. The U.S. immigration and justice systems are a microcosm of all the issues progressive organizations work towards reforming—safe housing, access to nutritious foods, LGBTQIA+ equity, abortion access, a reality where families have their basic needs met, the right to asylum, humane immigration policy, and other issue areas necessary for people to live their lives. As such, we must center those impacted by this abusive system in our movements’ intersectional efforts towards realizing an equitable society. As advocates and rights-based researchers, we must shine a light inside of these systems which fester in darkness.