An Overview of Detention in the U.S.

The United States maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system—between 34,000 and 50,000 people are being held in these prison-like places at any one time, and half a million are detained over the course of a year. These centers are scattered throughout the country, often in isolated places, and often operate without the public knowing where they are or what they are doing. A pervasive silence—a lack of transparency and accountability—characterizes immigration detention in this country.


Attached here is an interactive map of detention centers in the U.S., courtesy of Freedom for Immigrants. 

A historical overview of detention and immigration policy in the United States is an important place to start. To understand how we got to the place we are in today, we can look back at the past. Detention was not always such a large part of US immigration policy. There were even long stretches of time when detention was barely relied on at all. Let’s go back in time to see what happened. 

Some of the earliest forms of detention originated in the late 1800s. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 was the first major legislation to explicitly discriminate against a specific racial group immigrating into the US. In 1892, Ellis Island opened up its doors. Today, many regard Ellis Island as a beacon of America welcoming the “tired, poor, and huddled masses." Little do most people know, Ellis Island also served as an early detention facility. In 1910, Angel Island opened as its West Coast counterpart. Immigrants were kept in filthy and cramped conditions while they awaited their release. Mostly Eastern European immigrants came through Ellis Island while Asian immigrants arrived at Angel Island. 

The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that brought laborers from Mexico to the United States during the 1940s-60s. Once they had completed their work, they were supposed to go back to Mexico. The program didn’t account for the fact that people established connections and relationships when they were working in the US. Many former Bracero workers decided to remain in the US or return later to be with loved ones. This program began the process of painting Mexicans as the “inferior racial other” in the US. The workers were treated horribly and at times were sprayed with the chemical DDT. The program clearly commodified the lives of the Mexican migrant workers. 


The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 radically changed immigration policy. It was meant to bring a semblance of equality to immigration law by changing the unfair quota system of the time by giving every country a 20,000 immigrant limit. The law ended up putting a cap on authorized migration from Mexico and other Latin American countries and made it harder for those immigrants to enter the US legally. This change ended up placing many former Bracero workers in the category of “illegal immigrant” for the first time. 


Even so, detention was decreasing considerably as a form of immigration policy in the middle of the 20th century. Detention and prisons in general were losing favor and being viewed as outdated from the 50s-70s. There was a time in the 1970s when the US prison system “teetered towards extinction.” There were only a quarter million people in prisons across the country. Mainstream politicians were even recommending prison abolition. However, that didn’t last for long. 















In 1968, Nixon was determined to reinstate prisons as a fixture of the American criminal justice system by waging a “war on crime.” His campaign attempted to connect people of color with crime in the public’s view. The Reagan administration followed in his footsteps and continued the war on drugs and the tough on crime policies throughout the 1980s. The Reagan administration rejected 97% of asylum petitions from Salvadorans and 99% of Guatemalans during their refugee crises. And, in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act added the term “aggravated felony” to apply harsh consequences to noncitizens who commit certain crimes. 


In 1995, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) sponsored the Truth in Sentencing Acts that were signed into law in 25 states that required minimum sentences for prison across the country. These laws became popular throughout the 90s and the number of prisoners in the US exploded. 


One of the most impactful pieces of legislation that expanded mandatory immigrant detention and led to the current state of ICE was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Bill Clinton signed the bill into law and asserted that it strengthened “the rule of law by cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, in the workplace, and in the criminal justice system — without punishing those living in the United States legally.” The legislation created 287(g) agreements that essentially deputized local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE (then called INS). The law also encouraged INS to lease or purchase detention facilities rather than building their own. This led to the privatization element that we will discuss further in the next section. 


The 1996 Act also made it mandatory for many undocumented people to be immediately detained, without exception, and contributed greatly to their criminalization in the eyes of the public. The law categorized a huge range of crimes as “aggravated felonies,” and included in this categories things as minor as shoplifting and other offenses which are very often considered neither aggravated nor felonies in the criminal context. According to ICE, over 70 percent of immigrants in detention are mandatorily detained, meaning no consideration has been given to whether their individual situations in fact warrant detention. People spend years imprisoned while they wait for their cases to be resolved.


Some of the implications of this historical background is that the reintroduction of detention as a backbone of the US immigration policy has criminalized immigrants in the eyes of much of the public, especially the political right. The Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton presidencies associated immigrants with crime and encoded that into law. The binary of citizen vs. alien has become entrenched in our political discourse today. Even on the left, people often view immigrants through a good / bad binary. Our system rewards immigrants with no criminal background while severely punishing an immigrant with even a minor offense. For instance, the DACA program only was available for those who have no criminal history at all. An attitude of American exceptionalism pervades as many view citizens as inherently law-abiding even though citizens commit crimes all the time. 






The current structure of detention raises a key issue: there is a lack of accountability and transparency of conditions in detention facilities. Immigrants are unfairly seen through a xenophobic lens, such as the us versus them binary, which illustrates how heavily politicized immigration policy has become. Thus, as a society, we need to raise more awareness about the issues revolving around immigrant detention and hold the government and related parties accountable for the usage of taxpayer dollars toward the dehumanizing treatment of human beings. 


ICE manages the nation’s civil immigration detention system and detention itself should aim to be preventative rather than punitive in nature. However, much evidence points to the contrary, in which the conditions of civil immigration detention are punitive in practice. There are similarities between detention facilities and jails or prisons in the treatment of people in custody. In some ways, people have more rights in prison than in detention. Because immigrants are charged with civil violations, they lack the procedural protections that are available to those in the criminal justice system, such as having a lawyer appointed to them. The lack of due process in the immigration system is in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. In addition, the conditions in detention facilities have built strong arguments against the institution itself given the civil and human rights violations. 

The act of outlining all of the reported and unreported conditions within the walls of migrant detention centers beyond the scope of this entry; many are described throughout this website. Here, we will name just a few. In the particular instance of healthcare, detention facilities often deny adequate access to necessary medical care to detainees and this, in particular, affects LGBTI individuals who need treatments such as hormone replacement therapy or HIV-related care. The pervasive issues of sexual assault and harassment in detention pose a grave risk to particular populations as well. Transgender women may endure humiliating and abusive treatment from guards and other detainees and/or face solitary confinement or physical isolation as the only alternative to these forms of abuse. Another horrible condition in detention is the lack of employment laws as detainees are paid $1-a-day for manually laborious work in the facilities. For-profit detention corporations exploit detainee labor to compensate for their own deliberate failures in providing adequate facility maintenance and resources. 


Detention in the U.S. has become increasingly privatized. Through the lobbying of for-profit corporations that run detention centers, taxpayer dollars through government contracts are used to fund the institution of detention and perpetuate the commodification of human beings in these facilities. The term “immigrant industrial complex” speaks to the widespread anti-illegal rhetoric against immigrants that is used to increase the criminalization of undocumented migration and immigration law enforcement in the U.S. Therefore, the immigrant industrial complex reinforces the material border that upholds the criminalization of undocumented immigration and the exploitation of detainees for the capitalistic pursuits of for-profit prison corporations. “The two largest immigrant detention companies in the United States, the Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, earn annual profits of $1.17 billion and $1.69 billion, respectively." In this billion-dollar industry, these companies profit from federal contracts, which continue to incentivize increased immigration enforcement to fill detention quotas. Another key player in the immigrant industrial complex is ALEC, which promotes legislation to extend immigration enforcement powers to local police and influences local governments for financial gain.












The overall agenda pushed forward through private detention companies, politicians, and law enforcement officials is to continue the influx of undocumented immigrants that are arrested and detained under ICE in pursuit of financial gain. The human commodification of immigrants poses a multitude of legal issues, yet through the lack of oversight and accountability, the institution of detention still stands today.


Unfortunately, even top liberal politicians contribute to this for-profit system. For example, President Obama was called the “deporter in chief,” because he deported and detained many immigrants. Even though he was a liberal president, he supported immigration deportation and detainment. Under President Donald Trump, rhetoric around immigrant detention and deportation has gotten even worse, and more people have been inhumanely taken by ICE and placed into the system. Notably, migrant children were separated from their families in an act of severe injustice and some families have still not been reunited.


Clearly, this system is inhumane and severely flawed. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss potential alternatives to immigration detention that move away from mandatory detention laws. Some alternatives include parole, bond, home visits or check-ins, GPS monitoring and telephonic monitoring. It is important to note that Ingrid was denied bail despite having no criminal record and a valid asylum claim. This is partially a result of the privatization of the immigrant detention system; companies who run detention facilities like Batavia want to keep immigrants like Ingrid in the system for as long as possible so that they can increase profits.

Ultimately, the clear solution is abolition of immigration detention. It is a severely inhumane and corrupt system and no one should be forced into immigration detention, especially when they are fleeing other countries to save their lives. Everyone has a common human vulnerability, which means that no one should be placed into the conditions of detention.

The abolition of immigrant detention should not be a radical idea because, as noted above, immigration detention was not always a backbone of the American immigration system. We must support immigration detention abolitionists’ work to fight against the corrupt system and elevate the stories of immigrants living in detention like Ingrid. 

Under the incoming Biden administration, the first Latino man, Alejandro Mayorkas, will lead the Department of Homeland Security. 











He has already made it clear that he wants to drastically change how immigrants are treated in the United States and advocate for them. He is expected to put an end to Trump’s severe immigration policies. This serves as a glimmer of hope, but we must pressure the administration to abolish the immigrant detention system entirely.




By Samantha Noland, Michelle Abramowitz, and Sarah Da Rim

Image by Hédi Benyounes