Immigrant Detention

A Century of Injustice, and How You Can Help End It

After the overwhelming public outcry that culminated in protests in over 700 U.S. cities—including thirty thousand protesters at the Families Belong Together March & Rally San Francisco (co-organized by Indivisible SF)—in a major win for the Trump resistance, the administration was forced to suspend its heinous family separation policy on June 20, six weeks and at least 2,600 separated children and families after the policy’s announcement.

But the fight continues. Democrats are demanding that the administration produce a plan to reunite over 500 children that remain separated to this day. Families and courts are coping with the effects of the humanitarian crisis of children traumatized by separation, as well as drugging and other abuses.

While the Trump administration and far right extremist and immigration policy architect Stephen Miller are responsible for the most atrocious immigration detention policies the US has seen in generations, the country’s abuse of immigrants and refugees, and its corporate and political sponsorship, are hardly new, long predating this administration and its extreme policies. 

A Brief History of Immigrant Detention

The US immigration detention system, the oldest, largest in the world, originated over 120 years ago in 1892, at Ellis Island, New York. It was followed in 1910 by Angel Island Immigration Station, right here in San Francisco Bay, which was established to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned the immigration of Chinese laborers and excluded Chinese immigrants from citizenship.

The Immigration Act of 1924, including the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act, largely inspired by eugenics and antisemitism, established quotas for immigrants based on country of origin. It particularly limited Jewish immigration by Southern and Eastern Europe Jews, and transformed Ellis Island into a detention facility. 

But, as Christina Fialho, cofounder of Freedom for Immigrants, explains, immigrant detention really exploded in the 1980s and 90s alongside the expansion of private prisons in the US:

It wasn’t until 1981 that the Reagan administration opened the McAllen Detention Center on a former U.S. Navy Base in Puerto Rico to detain Haitians. The next year, as Reagan warned of a “tidal wave of refugees” fleeing civil wars in Central America, the administration established its Mass Migration Emergency Plan, requiring that 10,000 immigrant prison beds be ready for use at any given time.

This gave rise to the formation of the world’s first private prison company, Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), which changed its name in 2016 to CoreCivic. CCA/CoreCivic got its first federal government contract for an immigrant prison in Texas in 1983. And the publicly traded corporation has been lobbying to expand our immigrant prison system ever since. In the 1980s, there were anywhere from 30 to 3,000 people being held at a time; today it’s 10 times that, and 73% of them are in facilities operated by private companies.

In 1996, under the Clinton administration, two laws were passed that greatly expanded our civil immigrant prison system. These laws added extensively to the list of crimes that made any non-U.S. citizen, including many legal permanent residents, vulnerable to civil incarceration and deportation. Then the George W. Bush administration launched Operation Streamline, which authorized the criminal prosecution — rather than civil deportation — of those apprehended at the border; that’s the program the Trump administration used to separate families.

Today, over 400,000 people a year are held in immigration detention centers and prisons.

(See this timeline of immigration detention or this overview for a more detailed history.)

Detention Conditions

Immigration detention is jail. Immigrant detainees are often held in county jails alongside people serving time for criminal convictions, a practice forbidden by the EU and virtually every other country. Like a prison sentence, detention limits movement, visitation, food, recreation, and access to the outside world; both are confined to cells and forced to wear uniforms. But since immigrant detention is classified as an “administrative” or “civil” detention, rather than a criminal detention, unlike convicted prisoners, immigrant detainees are denied basic rights and due process, and are subject to inhumane, atrocious conditions, they are denied medical care, mental health care, and religious services, and they lack access to telephones, the right to court-appointed legal representation, and outside resources. 

The Cost to Taxpayers of Keeping Immigrants and Asylum Seekers in Prisons

The Fiscal Year 2019 Homeland Security Bill released by the House Appropriations Committee allocates $7.4 billion for ICE, $328 million more than the previous year’s budget, including $4.1 billion for detention and removal programs, including 44,000 detention beds, an increase of 3,480 beds over the previous fiscal year. In contrast, it costs only $50 a day for an entire family to receive community-based alternative housing and supportive services, such as connections to attorneys and help getting to court hearings. This is far cheaper than the average $798 it costs taxpayers daily to imprison a family (2½ individuals).

5 Things You Can Do

1. #DefundHate--Call your representatives and demand that they fight to eliminate Department of Homeland Security budget items related to deportation, detention or border militarization. (In addition to calling, you can sign this petition from MoveOn.)

“We need you to join us in cutting off the flow of money that allows the Department of Homeland Security to deport and detain our community members. Money is one of the only barriers to Trump’s DHS fully enacting its hate-fueled detention and deportation nightmare.
“Stopping the flow of money is critical to stopping the Trump anti-immigrant agenda. Help us change the way Congress funds DHS – from endless increases to not one dollar for deportation, detention or border militarization.” (Detention Watch Network)

2.   Sponsor a Detainee’s Bond: About 30% of detainees are given the chance to pay a bond to be released from detention while they await a hearing. Detainees who are released on bond are 8X more likely to have a favorable hearing. There’s no limit to the amount of the bond, and a detainee’s ability to pay doesn’t have to be taken into account--often the bond is too high for the detainee to pay. By donating to bond funds like the Bay Area Immigration Bond Fund, you can help a detainee get released from detention and dramatically improve their chances of obtaining legal status. 

3.   Support community-based Alternative Accompaniment Programs like Nueva Esperanza Housing, or the Post Release Accompaniment Project (PRAP).

4.   Volunteer! Join Freedom for Immigrants, in order to:

  • Visit: Community visitation programs ensure that people in immigration detention can maintain family and community ties and provide civilian oversight to a system that has little public accountability.
  • Become a Pen-Pal: Our pen-pal program is designed to connect volunteers with people in immigration detention who do not yet have visitors, to give them hope and a connection to the outside world.
  • Host: Serve as host for a few days, weeks, or months to people eligible for release.
  • Transportation: Drive people impacted by immigration detention where they need to go!
  • Help Us Grow: Help with fundraising and friendraising for our network.
  • Advocate for Policy Change: Use a wide range of advocacy tools, including community organizing, coalition building, and legislative advocacy, to fight for a country without immigration detention.

5.  Get involved or donate to one of the many immigration justice organizations fighting to end immigration detention in the US.