Skip to main content

Why We Should Repeal Mandatory Detention of Immigrants

  • border fence
    The U.S.-Mexican border in Douglas, Arizona. Recently, the wall has been replaced with a new one. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • A detention center
    The migrant detention center in Florence, Arizona, where migrants await deportation. The center is run by ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement)—most other facilities are operated by private entities. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • A folder with documents
    Deportation paperwork processed to send 78 Honduran migrants, of which six are women, back to Honduras from the Phoenix airport in Arizona. Every day there are five to nine flights to Central America. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • Men frisked by officers
    Immigration officers frisk and then place chain restraints on Honduran migrants before they board the plane that will deport them back to Honduras. Every day there are five to nine flights to Central America from the Phoenix airport in Arizona. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • A man boarding a plane
    While chained in restraints, a migrant from Honduras borders a plane to be deported back home at the Phoenix airport in Arizona. Every day there are five to nine flights to Central America. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • chairs with paper bags
    A special section of Guatemala airport has been set up as a reception center for Guatemalans who are deported from the United States. Every day one to two flights arrive from the United States. The people who arrive get a sandwich, a drink, a phone call back home. Their record is checked and they can get legal advice if needed. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • A man walking away from the border
    Mexicans who have just been deported from the United States are brought to a place where they will receive breakfast. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • Women standing and tended to by person
    Mexican women who have just been deported by the United States arrive in Mexico. A doctor treats the blisters on their feet, which many of them have from walking for days through the desert. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR
  • A statue with in a room
    Juan Bosco is a shelter in Nogales where Mexicans who have just been deported from the United States can stay for the night. When the deportees come in many of them put the ID tags, which they wore in US detention, around the Jesus statue. © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

In 2011, Kadir van Lohuizen, a photojournalist, gained permission to photograph inside a U.S. immigration detention center and on an airport tarmac while government agents prepared people for deportation. The photographs above offer a rare look at an inhumane detention system.

A reduction in immigration detention needs to be a vital component of any comprehensive immigration reform. As our country debates immigration policy, it’s time to repeal mandatory detention and restore judges’ power to review individual cases.

The U.S. immigration detention system has grown exponentially from about 70,000 people detained a year in 1996 to some 400,000 people in 2012. A primary reason for this expansion is a series of 1996 laws that expanded “mandatory detention.”

These laws force authorities to detain immigrants without a hearing. That includes the sick, elderly, pregnant women, green card holders, asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and legal residents who’ve resided in the U.S. for years. In a dramatic departure from our American values of due process and fairness, the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release immigrants and judges’ power to review individual cases were removed.

As a result, many people are held unnecessarily. For example, Detention Watch Network member Nazry Mustakim, a 31-year-old green-card holder from Singapore, was held at GEO Group’s South Texas Detention Center for 10 months in 2011–2012. Nazry moved with his family to the United States from his native Singapore in 1992 and was living in the United States legally when he was convicted in 2007 of felony drug possession. In a plea bargain deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years probation.

Nazry said he was never told that accepting the plea deal would compromise his residency in the United States. Later Nazry married Hope, and just a few months after they married, ICE came to their door and detained Nazry. Nazry was held for 10 months at the South Texas Detention Center, almost 250 miles from Waco, where Hope and Nazry live. After significant organizing and media attention, Nazry was released by ICE in February 2012 and his green card was reinstated.

Conditions in which people like Nazry are held are punitive and inhumane. A recent set of reports compiled by Detention Watch Network members highlighted conditions in 10 jails where immigrants are held that exemplify the egregious problems inherent throughout the immigration detention system.

We found immigrants in detention wait weeks or months for medical care; have inadequate, and in some cases absolutely no, outdoor recreation time or access to sunlight or fresh air; are offered inadequate and nutritionally lacking food; and are subjected to the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Their families suffer extraordinary difficulties trying to visit their imprisoned relatives.

In some facilities, families drive hundreds of miles to visit their loved ones, only to be forced to “visit” with them via video link in a separate building—not because they pose a risk, but because the facility does not want to incur additional costs for in-person visits. The remote location of many facilities also interferes dangerously with people’s ability to get legal help to fight their cases. They often have no access to a lawyer.

In the words of one immigrant detained at Baker County Jail in Florida, “We are like dogs. We can’t see the sun or the sky. Actually, even a dog gets to go outside.”

It should come as no surprise that immigration detention has helped fuel the mass incarceration crisis we face today and detaining immigrants has become a billion-dollar industry for private prison companies, like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Prison corporations lobby heavily to secure these government contracts to increase their profits, while county jails benefit by using money earned from detaining immigrants to fill gaps in their shrinking budgets.

In total, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spends over $2 billion a year to detain immigrants. While it costs an average of $164 per day per person to keep someone in detention, community-based supervision programs cost as little as $12 per day per person.

By rejecting mandatory detention, we can cut government spending by returning people to their communities and jobs, so families can stay together and local economies can continue to thrive. It’s time to align our immigration laws with our country’s values, based on the inherent dignity and equal rights of all who reside within our borders.

The Detention Watch Network is supported by the Open Society Foundations.

Read more

Sign up for updates on Open Society’s work around the world