What Is Immigration Jail Like?

by Matthew Bray


Each day the United States detains tens of thousands of people in detention facilities and local jails throughout the country. More than 400,000 are detained (including border apprehensions) on average each year. People are detained in the border area in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as well as in privately-owned and operated facilities throughout the country that are contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE also contracts local jails throughout the country to hold detainees held during removal proceedings.

Why are people detained?

By law, the idea behind detention is to guarantee the individual’s appearance at an immigration court proceeding. Immigration authorities (CBP, ICE, immigration judges) can release people on bond if they are found to not be a flight risk or a threat to public safety. In some circumstances, however, detention is mandatory—this is usually (though not always) for individuals with convictions for more serious crimes—and the immigration judge does not have jurisdiction to even hold an individual bond hearing to consider the person’s ties to the community or incentives to return to the court hearing.

What are conditions like?

Inside the facilities, men and women are usually separated. In the last several years, a few “family” detention centers in the border area have opened. These hold women and their children, most of whom were caught crossing the border during the “surge” of migration from the Northern Triangle. In some of the local jails, criminal detainees are mixed in the general population with detainees who have no criminal history.

For the most part, these facilities are like other jails—there is little to no freedom of movement and there can be limited access to counsel, telephone, or family visitation. Visitation that is allowed is often “no contact” visitation, where family members and attorneys meet detainees from behind plexiglass dividers. Detainees wear a uniform jumpsuit and are generally cuffed (including ankle cuffs) when being transported outside the facility or to court. Activists and detainees have alleged that staff and guards often ignore complaints—including complaints of abuse by other staff or guards, or about medical or living conditions—and are often unwilling to help those under their care.

Investigations have shown conditions are generally poor in all kinds of immigration detention facilities. Especially recently where there has been a spike in the detainee population, detention centers lack enough bed space for all the detainees arrested, and there can be inadequate food and water for the detainees. Given the desperate situations of most of the detainees, violence is commonplace, and there have been allegations of sexual abuse by guards in the women’s facilities. Prominent news outlets and organizations have reported on the conditions at detention centers, including the Guardian, Human Rights Watch, Think Progress, CNN, and the Huffington Post.

What is being done about poor conditions?

Extended detention and poor conditions at some detention centers have led to hunger strikes at some centers. Last year women detainees at the Berks facility in Pennsylvania and the Hutto facility in Texas led a hunger strike. Many of these women were waiting for an opportunity to make their asylum cases before an immigration judge. The ACLU and others have filed lawsuits against the government due to the especially dire conditions in the CBP facilities in the border sector, called “hieleras” in Spanish (translation: “freezers”). The lawsuit alleges overcrowding and freezing and filthy conditions where men, women, and sometimes children are held without beds, medical care, or access to basic hygiene.

Are there alternatives to detention?

Although individuals should only be detained to guarantee their appearance in court, alternatives to detention are often only used once the detention centers have reached their maximum capacity and have no more available beds. Since many of the facilities are owned and operated by private corporations that are paid many millions of dollars a year in taxpayer money, this practice strongly suggests that alternatives to detention are only employed when the private companies can no longer make money off of their prolonged detention. Over the last few years, more and more individuals caught crossing the US-Mexico border are being released with electronic ankle monitors and are required to attend “check-ins” at their local ICE offices. (Private companies administer these “alternatives to detention” programs as well.)

Despite numerous lawsuits over the years filed by immigrant advocates, it is unlikely that the billion-dollar immigrant detention industry will come to an end any time soon, and there will no doubt continue to be many thousands of immigrants held for extensive periods in the network of facilities all over the country. (The organization CIVIC has a map.) Between many newly-arrived asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries and the increase of long-time US residents facing removal, detention centers will likely be in use for the foreseeable future. Advocates have created visitation and support programs to be a lifeline for detainees fighting the isolation and boredom of prolonged detention and to build popular support for individuals fighting their detention and deportation. As with so many other aspects of the contemporary US immigration crisis, only a comprehensive strategy of reform that respects the nation’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law will address these issues in a meaningful way.