A short history of immigration detention

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This timeline provides an overview of the rise of U.S. immigration detention, the largest and oldest detention system in North America and the world.

It also highlights some of the first known immigration detention facilities to be built on other continents.

Download and share the full "Short history of immigration detention" infographic






1790 Naturalization Act - U.S. citizenship may be granted to free white persons of “good moral character”; Native Americans, slaves, indentured servants, free blacks, and Asians were effectively excluded.  


1798 Alien and Sedition Acts - Allowed for deportation of persons deemed “dangerous to the safety and security of the United States”




1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh - Ruling that established the U.S. government’s sovereignty over Indian law and land based on the “doctrine of discovery,” or European colonization of the New World


1830 Indian Removal Act - Set in motion decades of forced removals of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, and Ponca Native American nations from the southeastern United States, known as the “Trail of Tears”


1850 Fugitive Slave Act - Provided for a federal, bureaucratized system of returning slaves who had absconded from one state to another state or territory  


1850 First Privately-Run Prison - California state prison leased out to private management; it was plagued by mismanagement, corruption, and escapes before being returned to state management in 1860.


1865 Passage of the 13th Amendment - This Amendment abolishes slavery, but with a loophole, “except as punishment for crime,” paving the way for the convict lease system that allowed for prison labor to be contracted out to private interests for profit throughout the American South.  


1875 Page Act - Banned forced laborers and women suspected of prostitution from Asia



1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act - Prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 10 years, marking the first class of people excluded based on race. The Act provided for the nation’s first immigration inspectors and a process of deportation.


1889 Chae Chan Ping v. United States - Case challenging the Chinese Exclusion Act, but ruling held that excluding immigrants from entering the country was an extension of sovereignty belonging to the U.S. government. This would come to be known as the “plenary power” doctrine, in which the power to control immigration is conceded to the executive and legislative branches.


1891 Immigration Act - Created the first immigration department, created classes of excludable immigrants, and created new border enforcement procedures


1892 Geary Act - Required all Chinese laborers to register with the government or be subject to arrest, one-year imprisonment, and then deportation



1892 - The first dedicated immigration detention facility in the world, Ellis Island Immigration Station in New Jersey, opened


1893 Fong Yue Ting v. United States - Ruling held that expelling immigrants was an extension of sovereignty belonging to the U.S. government (known as the “plenary power” doctrine); and deportation was not punishment for a crime, and therefore, the Constitutional protections did not apply in these procedures. This case has been cited subsequently by the Supreme Court over eighty times.


1893 - Congress passed the first law requiring the detention of any person not entitled to admission. In their discretion, immigration officers would release some, mostly white,  immigrants on bond.


1896 Wong Wing v. United States - Ruling held that unlawful residency was not a crime, and therefore immigrants unlawfully in the country were to be arrested and forcibly removed from the country without formal imprisonment. This case essentially created the civil immigration detention system by holding, “We think it clear that detention or temporary confinement, as part of the means necessary to give effect to the provisions for the exclusion or expulsion of aliens, would be valid.”




1904 - Guards for the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor began patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border


1907 The Gentleman’s Agreement, an informal agreement between the United States and Japan, effectively restricting immigration from Japan


1910 - The second dedicated immigration detention facility in the United States, Angel Island Immigration Station in California, opened


1921 Emergency Quota Act - Restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3 percent of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the 1910 census. The formula was designed to favor Western European countries, as they had a higher quota, and drastically limit admission of immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe.


1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (also known as the National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act) - Restricted immigration further to the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 2 percent of the number who were already living in the United States before the 1890 census. Intended to “preserve American homogeneity,” the Johnson-Reed Act provided a pathway to citizenship for European immigrants while restricting Asians, Arabs, and most Africans completely.


1924 American Indian Citizenship Act - Most native peoples did not have citizenship until the passage of this act. Yet even after its passage, some native peoples weren't allowed to vote until as late as 1957 because the right to vote was governed by state law.


1924 - The U.S. Border Patrol was officially formed through the Labor Appropriation Act.


1928  -The convict leasing system ends, with Alabama being the last state to outlaw it.



1929 Immigration Act - Also known as Senator Coleman Livingston Blease’s bill, this Act targeted Mexicans and undermined rulings in Wong and Ting that decriminalized unlawfully residing in the U.S. Instead, this Act targeted people unlawfully entering the U.S. Unlawful entry would be a misdemeanor punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in prison, and unlawfully re-entry would be a felony punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to two years in prison.


1929 to 1936 - Mexican Repatriation occurs throughout the Great Depression, including mass round-ups and deportations of Mexicans and Filipinos. Estimates of total deportations range from 500,000 to 2M, of whom a likely 60% were U.S.-born citizens.


1939 - Over 44,000 cases prosecuted in previous 10 years under the Immigration Act of 1929.  Convictions on immigration charges surpassed all other federal crimes (except for alcohol charges under prohibition laws).


1940 - Angel Island Immigration Station in California closed.


1942 - As a World War II measure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, establishing U.S. sites as military zones and providing for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans over the course of the war, as well as German-Americans and Italian-Americans suspected of serving as enemy spies.


1943 - The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed and replaced with a quota.


1942 Creation of the Bracero Program - It provided temporary agricultural visas for people from Mexico in an effort to fill the World War II farm-labor shortages in the United States


1946 - The School of the Americas (SOA) is formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, a U.S. military program (still in effect) to exert imperialistic influence over Latin America and train Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, anti-communism, torture, and surveillance techniques. Former Panamanian president Jorge Illueca has called SOA, which has trained over 60,000 foreign soldiers, the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been forcibly displaced by the effects of this program.  



1952 Immigration & Nationality Act - Established the grounds for which a noncitizen can be blocked from entering the United States or deported, including criminal history or radical political views. It also allowed for authorities to use discretion to grant noncitizens release from detention on bond, based on community ties and pending a final determination of removability. This, combined with the end of the era of Chinese Exclusion, led to a decline in the systematic use of immigration detention (except during periods of targeted deportations of Mexicans in the 1950s and Haitians in the 1970s).


1954 - Ellis Island Immigration Station in New Jersey closed.


1954 to 1956 “Operation Wetback” - A targeted immigration enforcement campaign launched by the Eisenhower administration during which over 1M Mexicans, many who arrived under the Bracero Program, were targeted for deportation


1964 Bracero Program ends


1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act - Repealed 1921 national origins quotas, which had insured that immigration was primarily reserved for European immigrants, and replaced it with a preference system based on immigrants’ family relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. However, by placing limits on immigration from Latin America for the first time, this Act led to a rise in “unauthorized immigration” from this region in subsequent decades.


1966 Australia opened its first immigration detention facility in the country, the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre.


1970 - First dedicated immigration detention facility in Europe opened in England, the Harmondsworth Detention Centre, although France’s immigration detention regime dates back to 1970, as well.


1980 to 1981 - The United States begins a new round of mass immigration detentions in response to the migration of Cubans in the “Mariel Boatlift,” in addition to Haitians and Central Americans fleeing totalitarian governments and civil war.


1981 - President Ronald Reagan announces a new detention policy aiming to punish and deter Latin American migration, including the detention of asylum seekers. Reagan also launched a renewed “War on Drugs” that would pave the way for the increased militarization of border enforcement and conflation of drug and immigration enforcement through interdiction programs.


1981 - The Reagan administration opens the Fort Allen Detention Center on a former U.S. Navy Base in Puerto Rico to detain Haitians.  This facility was already being constructed by the Carter administration to detain Cuban and Haitian refugees.


1982 - Hong Kong passes an Immigration Bill, leading to the creation of the first immigration detention camps in the country. These are believed to be some of the first facilities in East Asia.


1982 - South Africa opened the first immigration detention center, the Lindela Holding Facility. Previously, immigrants were detained in prisons. This is believed to be one of the first dedicated facilities in Africa, although former European colonies most likely detained immigrants for decades prior.



1983 - The Reagan administration forms its Mass Immigration Emergency Plan, requiring that 10,000 immigration detention beds be located and ready for use at any given time.


1983 - The world’s first private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which changed its name in 2016 to CoreCivic, was formed. CCA enters into its first federal government contract for an immigration detention facility in Texas. Immigrants were first detained at a hotel owned by CCA, while the Houston Contract Detention Facility was being built.


1984 - GEO Group, formerly The Wackenhut Corporation, was formed.


1985 - CCA’s second facility opens in Laredo, Texas, and is the first immigration detention facility to detain infants and children.


1986 The Immigration Reform and Control Act - granted a blanket amnesty for undocumented arrivals and placed sanctions on employers of unauthorized workers; the latter went largely unenforced.


1987 - GEO Group wins its first federal government contract for the Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado, an immigration detention facility.


1988 The Anti-Drug Abuse Act - Required the mandatory detention of all non-citizens who had committed an “aggravated felony,” beginning a new era of mandatory immigration detention.


1988 President George H.W. Bush issued a national apology to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, awarding reparations of $20,000 to each family subjected to internment.


1990 - Australia opened its first private prison, run by Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA), owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)/CoreCivic


1991 - The United States opens an immigration detention facility, the Migrant Operations Center, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Before this naval base was used to hold prisoners of war indefinitely as part of the “War on Terror,” this facility was used to hold asylum seekers and refugees.


1993 - Following the lead of the United States in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas opens its first dedicated immigration detention facility in the Caribbean, the Carmichael Road Detention Center.


1994 - The United States, Canada, and Mexico enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); in effect, resulted in long-term job loss and economic stagnancy in Mexico and the displacement of Mexican small farm operators and workers.


1994 “Operation Gatekeeper” - Border enforcement program under the Clinton administration that provided for the doubling of Border Patrol officers, construction of 5 miles of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, and additional fencing in Arizona. These measures forced migrant routes into more treacherous desert regions, resulting in increased deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands--over 7,000 as of 2017. 


1995 - Series of uprisings in for-profit immigration detention facilities



1996 The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) -

Together known as “The 1996 Laws,” this set of laws has had the greatest impact on expanding the U.S. immigration detention system by expanding the list of “crimes of moral turpitude,” including non-violent drug and other charges, for which both legal immigrants and undocumented non-citizens can be subjected to mandatory detention and deportation. These laws can be applied retroactively, and also impose 3-year, 10-year, and lifetime bars on returning to the U.S. after deportation.



2001 Zadvydas v. Davis - Case limiting the “plenary power doctrine,” or the authority of the U.S. government to detain immigrants indefinitely, if they do not have a country that will receive them after their are ordered deported.


2001 - A terrorist attack launched by the group Al-Qaeda on September 11 hijacked four commercial airplanes and killed 2,753 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, effectively beginning the U.S. “War on Terror.” The U.S. government passes the USA PATRIOT Act to expand surveillance capacities and heightens its targeting of Arab and Muslim immigrants for detention.


2002 - Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison established in Cuba; the base had previously been used as an immigration detention site from the 1970s-90s to detain Cubans and Haitians.


2003 Demore v. Kim - Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal government’s right to detain legal immigrants during deportation proceedings.  


2003 Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is dissolved and reformed into three branches: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The immigration detention system now falls under the purview of ICE.


2005 “Operation Streamline” begins, allowing for the criminal prosecution of people apprehended at the border and to be held in privately-operated Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons and administered by the Bureau of Prisons.


2008 - The Bush administration pilots the “Secure Communities” program, strengthening federal immigration and local law enforcement partnerships.


2009 Immigration Detention Bed Quota - Passed by Congress, DHS must now maintain a minimum of 34,000 detention beds across the country on any given day.  


2009 - Obama administration temporarily ends practice of family detention, although the Berks Family Detention Center remains in operation


2011 - The Obama administration expands the “Secure Communities” program, which relies on federal and local law enforcement partnerships to carry out ICE’s detention priorities.


2011 - Ecuador opens Hotel Hernon, followed by Hotel Carrión (opened in 2013). These are the first dedicated detention facilities in South and Central America, although Ecuador passed legislation in 1971 to allow for the detention of unauthorized migrants.


2012 - The Obama administration established the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, providing temporary work status and relief from deportation for those who arrived in the United States as minors and meet certain requirements.


2012 - Israel opens the Holot Detention Center, the largest in the world to date, with capacity to hold up to 10,000 migrants.   


2014 - The Obama administration resumes practice of family detention in response to increase of unaccompanied minors, women and child migrants from Central America.  


August 2016 - The U.S. Justice Department and DHS announce they will phase out the use of private prisons; private prison industry stocks plummet.


November 2016 - Donald J. Trump is elected president; private prison industry stocks rise.


January 2017 - At the end of President’ Obama’s term, detention numbers are at a record high of over 40,000 per day and the Obama administration has deported over 3 million people, more than all presidents since 1890 combined.


January 2017 -President Trump signs Executive Order on immigration, promising to fortify and expand U.S. immigration enforcement capacities and the detention system.


October 2017 - The Dignity Not Detention Act passes in California, the first law of its kind to restrict the growth of for-profit immigration detention contracting on a statewide level. This law was drafted and co-sponsored by Freedom for Immigrants.