Immigration Detention: How Did We Get Here?

As the chaotic and painful effects of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy continue to be felt (children and parents traumatized, families still separated), we are also seeing the workings of a major player in the unfolding human drama:  the American immigration detention system.  For a map and visualization of the system that was recently developed by a team of scholars, see Torn Apart/Separados.

The system now houses anywhere from 34,000 to 40,000 individuals at any particular time, but this was not always the case.  In fact, from the time that Ellis Island closed in as a port of entry for immigrants (1954) up until the early 1980’s, very few individuals coming to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees were held in detention.  Even during the 1980’s, the number of people held in detention at any one time varied from as low as 30 to 3000.

Fast growth:  how and why?

 How and why, then, did the detention system grow so large and so fast?  Some of the changes involved political responses to specific migrations.  For example, President Ronald Reagan opened up a facility in Puerto Rico in 1981 to detain Haitian refugees fleeing political chaos and repression in that country, and other detention facilities were opened up soon after in response to migrations of people fleeing political upheaval in Central America.

But other major factors were involved, including legislation that vastly expanded the range of legal grounds for detaining immigrants.  Two pieces were signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996:  the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). These bills made it possible for an immigrant already in the country to be detained and deported for a much broader range of crimes than previously, including minor illegal drug possession and shoplifting.  Thus the growth of immigration detention is linked to the vast expansion of mass incarceration in the 1990’s and beyond.

Profiting from detention

Another major factor contributing to the expansion of immigration detention has been the growth of for-profit corporations that operate detention facilities, and these companies now account for 73% of all detentions in the U.S.  Corporations such as CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group have engaged in massive legislative lobbying over the years to expand their share of the detention “business.”

Immigration detention is classified by the U.S. as a form of civil, administrative confinement, but for all intents and purposes it is incarceration, and many detention facilities, particularly those managed by private companies, have been cited numerous times for various kinds of human rights abuse, including sexual and physical assault and medical neglect.

The human suffering associated with the administration’s zero tolerance policy continues to be widely documented in story after story.  At the same time, these stories are drawing into greater scrutiny the system that is deeply implicated in that suffering.  The stories are raising deeper questions about the system itself:  How?  Why?  And how long must it endure?

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