Downtown, Chicago-July 13, 2019: Protest against ICE and Customs and Border Patrol Detention Centers. Front line marchers with banners supporting immigration. (Shutterstock)
By Linda Nwoke, Journal Exclusive
History records show that over a century ago, the United States Congress passed the first law that mandated the detention of any person not entitled to admission into the country. As far back as that time, immigration officers could use their discretion to determine those they would release or immigrants held on bond.
It all started at Ellis Island, used during the Second World War as a permanent facility to hold foreign nationals. Although the facility has evolved into an immigration museum, the principle and process have remained the same.
How Immigration Detention Works
The idea behind immigration detention is that foreigners are denied liberty based on migration-related reasons, enforced by immigration authorities, who have been authorized to detain non-citizens on migration grounds. The enforcement is based on civil rather than criminal law, carried out on administrative grounds rather than law enforcement based on criminal charges. However, immigration issues can also become criminal charges enforced by the police and criminal courts.
Presently, the United States has one of the largest systems of detention facilities in the world, expanding by over 85% since the 70s. It is designed to hold migrants awaiting immigration decisions like civil immigration violations, deportation, illegal entry, or suspects of visa violations.
This enforcement is carried out by two central agencies, ICE, which stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office in charge of arrest and detention. They also work with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in enforcing the law. While the CBP holds migrants for short durations at processing centers, ICE holds migrants for extended periods, so much that “the fear of ICE has become the beginning of immigration wisdom.”
As of July 2022, there were less than 23,000 people held by ICE, which is significantly lower than in previous years when the numbers reached 50,000 detainees. In 2009, Congress mandated ICE to maintain a minimum number of detention beds known as the national detention bed quota, which held at less than 34,000 in FY 2021. There was a massive surge to over 50,000 on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 when ICE’s daily detained population exceeded 52,000.
There are over 125 detention centers in the U.S., and ICE detention facilities are operated under various arrangements. There are three major categories: some are ICE-owned Service Processing Centers, a couple are privately-owned Contract Detention Facilities, while the rest are a variety of facilities operated in agreements with local, state, and federal agencies.
Rebecca Wolf, Policy Counsel at America Immigration Council, explained in a meeting that there is a push under Biden’s administration to reduce immigration detention, especially those at the small county jails. “Most detention facilities were initially built as prisons. However, custody did not mean to serve as punishment. However, it has now become a form of punishment. ”
“It has now become punitive as due process and access to counsel for the detained migrant is not guaranteed, and there are severe restrictions on their rights to representation,” says Wolf.
Another concern of importance is that U.S. immigration enforcement is embedded in the current system of racism. For instance, Latino immigrants make up 57% of the immigrant population, yet they make up over 90%of deportations. “The U.S. has historically targeted countries positively by giving certain privileges, while other countries are treated with suspicion. Black immigrants are more likely to be shackled and six times more likely to be sent to solitary confinement, “she explains.
Some of the Major Problems with Immigration Detention
Another area of concern is the state of conditions in an ICE detention center. The standard of care in ICE facilities varies from one facility based on the type of facility and the contractual arrangements in place. Currently, ICE contracts with private prison companies like the GEO Group and Core Civic, while the local governments run the county jails.
There have been multiple reports of failings linked to cutting corners. Despite ICE spending over $8 billion in 2021, some detained immigrants are forced to work for negligible pay, not to mention the terrible and dangerous conditions some live in related to the absence of adequate health services and understaffing, poor amenities, and overcrowding.
Alex Miller, Director of Immigration Justice Campaign at America Justice Council, explains that a profit motive drives the private prison companies that run the county jails, which affects the detained migrants in unimaginable ways. For instance, “immigrants are denied medical care, leaving them in dire straits. She said that she did not provide adequate access to personal protective equipment and placed some of them in isolation with cases of some immigrants who identify as transgender but were thrown into the wrong group,” she said.
Some conditions migrants under detention face include sexual assault and harassment, dirty facilities, cases of non-working plumbing, insects found in food, and inadequate water and nutrition.
Racist abuse by staff is frequent, excessive use of force, and threats of retaliation. “In some cases, individuals were not given the appropriate diet or not being given the food they need. There were also cases of mistreatment by medical staff,” she said.
One of the Immigration Justice campaigns, in collaboration with other partners and stakeholders, called for the immediate release of people held in ICE custody at the Torrance County Detention Facility based on findings by a federal watchdog agency over the dangerous and inhumane conditions at the facility.
The ICE detention site, Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF), is owned and operated by Core Civic in a private operating arrangement. Following a years-long abuse, neglect, and mismanagement trend, the facility failed an inspection that identified sanitation concerns and understaffing. There are stories of guards launching an unjustified chemical attack on migrants holding a peaceful hunger strike to raise concerns about inadequate COVID-19 precautions.
There were also complaints of the facility denying people access to legal counsel, including detained Haitian migrants who suffered mistreatment and abuse by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas.
According to Wolf, “The use of this highly remote facility, which is almost one and half hours away from the nearest population center, causes detained migrants to be subjected to horrific situations.
An oversight committee on the facility’s state findings called for all detainees to be taken out of the facility. Unfortunately, the recommendation was ignored, and the facility continued to hold people.
As reported on the American Immigration Committee website: “We are shocked but not surprised by the findings in the Office of Inspector General report describing dangerous, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility,” said ACLU of New Mexico Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Sheff.
Besides the report on the state of some of the detention facilities, the Director of the Immigration Justice Campaign also spoke about the inability of detained migrants to access the phone to find attorneys, friends, or family members who can help them. Such necessities are often made difficult or almost impossible.
Furthermore, interpreters are often unavailable during their representation, especially for detainees who speak other languages besides Spanish. Unfortunately, information about the immigration process is often not translated.
“A lot of these facilities are really far and remote,” she said, “During COVID and the outbreak, it became a problem to provide detainees with attorneys for representation, as well as the absence of an interpreter in their primary language.”
She recalled one of her clients seeking asylum, who complained that there was no option of being able to speak in private, not to mention that access to counsel is limited. “There is no right to government council, but you have the right to seek counsel. Even when attorneys are available, it is difficult to gain access. In some cases, migrants had to pay thousands of dollars to gain representation,” says Alex Miller.
Discussions Around Alternatives to Detention
One clear fact is that detainees need representation, as it makes a huge difference. Wolf states that “simply having an attorney is very important for people in detention, where only 45% are represented. People without attorneys are often removed.”
The presenters explained that there are alternatives to detention, such as ‘protection-centered’ case management and providing legal support to the detainees.
Organizations like The American Immigration Council and others keep advocating for the phasing-out of migrant detention, beginning with the closure of some specific facilities.
The letter urged President Biden’s administration to release detained individuals in the facilities without placing them in surveillance programs and halt all efforts to expand the capacity for the detention of immigrants.