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Immigration Detention Centers in America


The United States government holds hundreds of thousands of immigrants in its more than 200 detention centers located in different states. The immigrants are detained in these places for entering the US unlawfully, and await processing for legal entry into the country (asylum seekers) or deportation. Detention is conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs Border Protection (CBP). The centers also hold children under the supervision of the Office of Refugee Resettlement program. The high cost of operation prompted the government to privatize the centers by contracting them to private corporations. This paper will discuss the history of detention centers, their spread across America, alternatives, federal spending, privatization, and criticisms.

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Brief History

The history of immigration detention dates back to the 1930s when Ellis Island was used as a holding facility for foreigners throughout the Second World War. Its operations lasted until the 1950s when it fell into disuse. At the end of the 1970s, the detention system had less than 3,000 immigrants and asylum seekers (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). In the 1980s, President Reagan developed a program to counter the mass entry of immigrants from Haiti (Ghosh, 2019). The facilities that were created were criticized for poor living condition and rampant cases of abuse. In the 1990s, the facilities increased significantly. However, by 2017, the number had decreased as private centers had taken control of some of the smaller centers (Ghosh, 2019). The Trump administration has called for more stringent immigration policies that have led to the detention of more immigrants.

Facilities across America

The immigrant detention system in the US has been expanding rapidly as the number of undocumented immigrants rises. There are approximately 200 detention facilities across the country (American Immigration Council, 2020). Government statistics reveal that 10% of immigrants are in detention centers run by ICE while 20% are in county and local governments’ facilities (Kassie, 2019). Approximately 70% are held in centers that are run by private corporations (American Immigration Council, 2020). According to government statistics, during the Fiscal Year 2018, the ICE was holding 396,448 people (Kassie, 2019). Unaccompanied children are held in facilities operated by health and human services. However, more than 500 children have been reported to be detained in private centers (American Immigration Council, 2020). ICE has contracted several groups. For instance, the Geo Group operates 64 immigration detention facilities and prisons.

Alternatives to Detention Centers

Advocacy groups like Detention Watch Network, the International Detention Coalition, and the Women’s Refugee Commission have contended that the US could decrease the cost of immigrant detention by investing in alternatives. The centers have become difficult to operate because of the rapidly growing population. As a result, the ICE has developed alternatives as a mitigation measure. They include home visits, electronic monitoring, and phone check-ins (Kassie, 2019). These alternatives were developed after an increase in accusations of housing individuals in squalid living conditions, abuse of immigrants, poor hygiene, and lack of medical care. According to ICE, more than 98, 373 people are monitored through electronic devices (Kassie, 2019). The cost of monitoring an individual under the alternative programs is $4.43 a day while under the detention centers model it is more than a hundred dollars daily (Kassie, 2019). These programs have eased the organization’s financial burden because they are inexpensive.

Federal Spending

Over the years, the amount of money spent by the federal government on detention has been on the rise. For example, the ICE spent $1.8 billion in 2010 and $3.1 billion in 2018 (Kassie, 2019). Advocacy groups have argued that the government could save up to $1.44 billion annually if it invested in alternative methods of detention (Conclon & Hiemstra, 2017). The high cost of operation has been one of the reasons for the privatization of the centers.

Fiscal Year ICE’s Custody Operations Appropriations
2010 $1.8 billion
2011 1.8 billion
2012 $2.1 billion
2013 $2.0 billion
2014 $2.0 billion
2015 $2.5 billion
2016 $2.3 billion
2017 $2.7 billion
2018 $3.1 billion

Table 1: federal spending on detention (Kassie, 2019).

Privatization of Detention Centers

The implementation of more stringent immigration policies and the criminalization of immigration breaches have piled pressure on America’s detention capabilities since the 1990s. This prompted the Bureau of Prison and the immigration authorities to contract private facilities to reduce the cost of operation (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). The majority of the detention centers have undergone privatization and are operated by private entities that have been contracted by ICE. This model of detention has been widely criticized because of the lack of government monitoring (Conclon & Hiemstra, 2017). Opponents of the system have argued that human rights violations can increase because the corporations’ main objective is profit maximization (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). In addition, these abuses can be easily concealed, and thus become difficult to uncover.

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The desire for higher profits means that the more detainees a center holds, the more profits it generates. Therefore, it is easy to subject immigrants to poor living conditions and deny them access to medical care (Ghosh, 2019). Critics have argued that the model should be discarded because alternatives like electronic monitoring are cheaper. They contend that supervision is more cost-effective than detention. In 2017, President Trump announced the development of more detention centers in America, thus promoting privatization (Kassie, 2019). In the past years, some politicians have made attempts to eradicate the system. However, their efforts proved futile as the bills were rejected by Congress.

Conditions in Detention Centers

Immigrants in detention centers are not guaranteed the right to legal advice. Therefore, they are required to hire a lawyer, even though the majority cannot afford one. Pro-bono lawyers offered by immigration courts usually offer representation to asylum seekers only or individuals who have not been detained (Conclon & Hiemstra, 2017). ICE detention standards require centers to offer detained access to law libraries, legal representation, and a handbook covering immigration detention (Kassie, 2019). However, these standards are not practiced in detention centers. ICE has been criticized for allowing detainees to be held in “short term” facilities awaiting processing (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). These facilities lack basic needs that are needed for proper hygiene and are usually overcrowded.

International advocacy organizations have criticized the US government for the rising cases of human rights violations in detention centers. The majority of immigrants arrested by ICE or CBP are detained in county and local jails that are operated on a correctional model that clashes with the civil nature of immigration detention (Kassie, 2019). Abuse in detention centers arises from the lack of proper oversight by ICE and the absence of penalties for facilities that fail to meet the minimal detention standards (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). Moreover, the agency has failed to invest in the development of more humane and cheaper community-based alternatives that could reduce the number of detainees by about 80% (Kassie, 2019). A 2010 report released by New York Times revealed that many deaths in detention centers are unreported as they have embraced a culture of secrecy (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). Government reports have shown that poor medical care is the major cause of death.


Immigration detention centers have been criticized for engaging in unethical practices in order to maximize profits. Violation of human rights have been reported in many facilities across America (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). For instance, the Geo Group has been accused of lowering employee wages, offering limited access to healthcare, and subjecting detainees to unhealthy living conditions. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has been criticized for poor living conditions, inadequate staffing, high employee turnover, and unethical business practices (Nethery & Silverman, 2015). The solitary confinement used in certain centers has been cited as a potential cause of prison psychosis and severe psychological problems. The system has also been disapproved because even though ICE acknowledges that it needs an overhaul, cheaper alternatives remains underutilized.


The United States immigrant detention system is the largest in the world. It has evolved immensely over the years. Currently, the majority of government’s detention facilities have been privatized as the costs of operation have soared. Immigrants who enter the US are held in these centers to await processing in the case of asylum seekers or deportation. Opponents of the system have argued that they mistreat immigrants and that cheaper alternatives like electronic monitoring should be used. Cases of human rights violations have been reported in many facilities. Poor living conditions, abuse, and limited access to healthcare have been cited as some of the causes of deaths reported in detention facilities. Advocacy groups have called for their abolishment because private corporations’ main priority is the maximization of profit without regard for the rights of detainees.


  1. American Immigration Council. (2020). Immigration detention in the United States by agency. American Immigration Council. Web.
  2. Conclon, D., & Hiemstra, N. (Eds.). (2017). Intimate economies of immigration detention: Critical perspectives. Routledge.
  3. Nethery, A., & Silverman, S. J. (Eds.). (2015). Immigration detention: The migration of a policy and its human impact. Routledge.

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