When it comes to immigration, we agree on more than we think.  It’s time we move past polarization.



No matter your beliefs on immigration, we can all agree that living in a country or crossing a border without the proper documentation does not strip people of their humanity. In fact, no moral or religious framework holds that people from foreign lands are less deserving of basic dignities than those fortunate enough to be born in the right place at the right time. Yet, people in immigration detention are regularly subjected to physical and sexual assault, medical abuse, and forced labor. And these human rights violations are paid for with your tax dollars. 


These are the questions we receive from people across the political spectrum:

1. How do we really know there are abuses occurring in immigration detention. Can’t people just lie to take advantage of the system?

Freedom for Immigrants has documented abuses in immigration detention that have been verified not only by the person reporting the abuses and other witnesses, but also by government documents we obtain through open record laws. Even the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security has corroborated Freedom for Immigrants’ documentation of unlawful strip searches, substandard medical care, and abuse. For example, in December 2017, OIG documented how “detainees with painful conditions, such as infected teeth and a knee injury” wait “days for medical intervention,” obtained video surveillance of a jail officer threatening to lock everyone down during “a hostile and prolonged rant,” and “expired” and “moldy” meat and other food products.

It’s important to understand that a person in immigration detention can’t just pick up and leave after reporting an abuse — they’re often forced to interact with the individuals who perpetrated the abuse, including sexual and physical abuse. And if they dare to speak up, they’re often retaliated against and then re-victimized by an ineffective or non-existent investigative process. For example, people who speak out often face retaliation in the form of solitary confinement, physical and psychological violence, transfers far away from family and legal support, and even deportation. We know that for every reported abuse, there are countless other abuses that go unreported because of fear of retaliation or lack of language accessibility.


2. Aren’t you a "criminal" just by being here without documentation?

In most countries, including the United States, immigration detention is a civil form of confinement; people are not being held for the commission of a crime. In some cases, people held in immigration detention have not even violated a civil law.

For example, one of the only legal ways to claim asylum in the United States is by presenting oneself at the border. Because of laws passed in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. government must immediately detain all people who claim asylum at the border. These individuals have not broken any civil or criminal laws, but they may be held in immigrant jails and prisons for months or even years.  

It’s important to note that no one — not a single person — is being held in U.S. immigration detention for the commission of a crime. While some people have past criminal convictions, they have already served time or probation for that crime.  Immigration detention acts as an effective double jeopardy for those who have committed crimes and served criminal sentences.


3. Why do you work with people with past criminal convictions?

The immigration detention system is part of the larger incarceration system.  In fact, in some countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Switzerland, people in immigration detention are held in criminal jails and prisons.  

In the United States, the criminal justice system acts as a pipeline into the detention system. Noncitizens can be turned over to ICE for misdemeanors, probation violations, and petty theft. This is a result of local and state police collaborations through government programs such as ACCESS (Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security), where police refer noncitizens in their custody to ICE. These enforcement programs funnel people from the criminal justice system into a detention and deportation system that lacks due process and accountability.

Even people without criminal histories can be detained.  In fact, under the Trump administration, there has been a 157% increase in detentions of people with no criminal convictions.  This is a result of federal programs such as 287(g), and ICE enforcement tactics of raiding places of employment or waiting outsides of court houses, hospitals, and schools.

Government programs that entangle immigration enforcement with local police or other local institutions diminish the trust immigrant communities may otherwise have in these systems.  While sanctuary policies are one step to demonstrate solidarity and reduce collusion, we need to simultaneously focus on reducing over-policing and ending the use of excessive force in our communities.

In the United States, there is bipartisan support for reforming our criminal justice system, but so far, there has not been bipartisan support for addressing our unnecessary immigration detention system.  Immigration detention is not the solution for dealing with our failing criminal justice system.  If a person has had contact with the criminal justice system, detention and deportation becomes an unfair second punishment.  As a country that protects against double jeopardy, immigration detention flouts our country’s values. Learn more about why we believe in abolition. 


4. Shouldn't we focus on helping people born in our country first?  

Photo by @sashapritchard via Twenty20

Photo by @sashapritchard via Twenty20

Providing support to immigrants and to native-born people is not an either-or.  The immigration detention and the incarceration systems are designed to hide the socioeconomic problems and disparities that plague our communities, from poverty to homelessness to our unfair education system.  Fighting for the freedom of immigrants is part of the struggle for better jobs, better homes, and better education for all.

We care for immigrants because we care for all people already in this country. Many U.S. citizens are from mixed status families, with at least one member of the family being undocumented. When a parent, sibling, or loved one is ripped away from the family, the whole family unit suffers. School grades can plummet and the ability to pay rent and put food on the table becomes more difficult, if not impossible.

Fighting for the freedom of immigrants is also part of the struggle for the freedom to create a better world outside of the structures of national boundaries, racial divisions, and a capitalist division of labor.  We care for the peoples of every nation because we care for humanity and the planet.


5. I know tons of people who immigrated legally. So why don’t undocumented immigrants just get in line?

Until the late 19th century, the categories of “illegal” or “legal” immigration to the United States did not exist. Before there can be “illegal” immigration, there has to be a law to break. As our timeline illustrates, the laws that were created in the 19th century were established to block and expel people of color from the United States.

Today, many of these laws remain in place. No “line” is available for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants.  For example, in the United States, there are generally three kinds of immigration: family reunification, employment, or humanitarian protection. Most undocumented immigrants do not have the required family or employment relationships. While there are visas available for the spouses, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens, for all other family categories, there are annual quota limits. For people from countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and India, the wait time can be an entire generation. The Trump administration is now trying to make it more difficult for families to be reunited. To learn more, read the Cato Institute’s article.

Accessing humanitarian protection, such as asylum status, is often difficult. To qualify for asylum, a person has to prove a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin.” This becomes extremely difficult for the person in immigration detention because the person often does not have access to an attorney, to the internet to gather supporting country conditions, or to family who can help them gather the documents necessary to prove they are fleeing persecution.


6. If immigration detention is so bad, why don't people just self deport?

Conditions in immigrant prisons and jails across the world are so terrible in part because governments believe that poor conditions lead to self-deportation.  In other words, governments are purposefully creating immigration detention regimes that are inhumane in the hopes that these unlivable conditions will force people to return to their country of origin.  However, many people are willing to be confined in deplorable conditions indefinitely rather than be sent to suffer possible harm or death in their country of origin or be separated from their family members already living in the country indefinitely.  In most instances of “self-deportation,” when a person in detention signs away their right to fight their immigration case, the deportation is far from "voluntary."   


7. Doesn't immigration detention deter more unauthorized migration?

Studies have shown that immigration detention is not an effective practice for reducing unauthorized migration.  In fact, a 2015 Odysseus Network report on immigration detention in the European Union found that “increasing use of detention worldwide has not reduced irregular migration flows.”  Instead, immigration detention weakens other migration management outcomes, such as case resolution, departure for refused cases, and integration into the host country for approved cases.  For example, imagine coming to the United States to seek protection only to find yourself in a county jail or for-profit prison for months. Integrating into the U.S. culture after time spent in these jails and prisons is considerably more challenging, especially from a psychological standpoint.  To learn more, read the International Detention Coalition’s briefing paper.


8. If we closed all immigrant prisons and jails, what would we do with all the people in immigration detention?

Prior to the early 1980s, only about 30 people were held in immigration detention in the United States, and immigration detention was effectively non-existent in most other countries. In recent history, we lived in a world without immigration detention. This is possible again. Although one cannot idealize the exploitative system that regulated migration patterns in the past, it is helpful to recognize that the elimination of immigration detention is a realistic goal in the present.

Rather than being detained, people will be provided with case management support so that they understand the laws they must comply with in order to get to each of their court hearings. If they are recent asylum seekers without access to housing, they will be provided with temporary housing similar to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Learn more about Freedom for Immigrants' community-based alternative model or learn about the more than 250 examples of alternatives from 60 countries.


9. Why don't we just use ankle monitors and/or put undocumented immigrants on house arrest?

An ankle monitor is not an alternative to detention. Rather, it is an alternative form of detention because it privileges surveillance and profit over support. Ankle monitors are bulky and makes walking painful because of their weight.  They require hours of re-charging—while still on individuals' bodies—every day. Those wearing an ankle monitor are usually enrolled in a government program that also requires home visits without prior warning, making it nearly impossible to leave the house or find employment.  Many people describe the experience of wearing an ankle monitor as humiliating. It is a clear extension of how the U.S. has traditionally branded, disabled, and encumbered people who are designated to be a part of the criminal population.

In the United States, this government program is run by BI, which created the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP).  BI is subsidiary of GEO Group, which generates approximately $47 million in annualized revenues from ISAP.  ISAP relies on the use of electronic ankle monitors, biometric voice recognition software, unannounced home visits, employer verification, and in-person reporting to supervise participants.  

In the United States, the ankle monitor industry has also given rise to other exploitative companies, such as Libre by Nexus. This company purports to get people out of immigration detention by paying their immigration bonds; in reality, the company requires the immigrant to pay 10% of the original bond, then straps an ankle monitor on the immigrant, and then charges them $420 a month until their case is closed plus 20% of the original bond each year in what is called a “yearly renewal premium” for the life of the loan. This has resulted in a reality where immigrants released from detention into ISAP by payment of a bond will be forced to wear two separate ankle monitors, one from the government and one from Libre by Nexus, for years until the conclusion of their case. This is not a true alternative. This is not the look of freedom.


10. With community-based alternatives to detention, won't people just go into hiding and not show up for their court hearings?

Studies have shown that people released on true community-based alternatives to detention attend their court hearings. For example, in 1996, the the former U.S. immigration agency, Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS), contracted with the Vera Institute for Justice to run a three-year demonstration program in New York testing the alternative-to-detention program strategy.

In order to participate in the program, individuals needed to meet criteria demonstrating a lack of threat to public safety, strong community ties and satisfactory compliance with prior reporting requirements. Participants also had to live in the New York metropolitan area. If a detained noncitizen met this criteria, the Appearance Assistance Program (AAP) would recommend release from custody, without bond, conditioned upon complying with the program’s requirements. The appearance rate for this program makes a strong case for why people should be eligible for release on a community-based alternative to immigration detention:

  • 93% of asylum seekers appeared for their hearings

  • 94% of people with past criminal convictions showed up for their hearings


11. Won't community-based alternatives to detention be more costly for taxpayers?

Experience in pilot programs around the world has demonstrated that community-based alternatives to detention are cheaper and more humane than the current immigration detention system. For example, it costs taxpayers approximately $5 million dollars per day to run the modern U.S. immigration detention system; this cost is only rising as the current administration expands the immigration enforcement apparatus. This translates into approximately $165 per person per day in immigration detention. Studies conducted by Freedom for Immigrants and pilot studies conducted by the U.S. government have found that community-based alternatives to immigration detention are significantly cheaper, ranging from $0.70 to $17 per day.


12. Aren't undocumented immigrants already taking a lot of our public benefits?

This is an unfortunate myth.  Undocumented immigrants in the United States contribute more in payroll taxes than they will ever consume in public benefits. In fact, undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving most public benefits. Even many legal permanent residents are barred from receiving food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. In fact, poor immigrants use public benefits at a lower rate than poor native-born citizens.


13. If we legalized all the people in the United States, how would we secure the border to prevent unauthorized immigration in the future?

Building a wall or funneling more taxpayer dollars into “border security” does not prevent migration. Border security usually translates into more taxpayer funding for corporations profiting off of detention, and the wall has never been an effective strategy for preventing migration. The U.S. has already constructed walls along significant sections of its borders and the result has been catastrophic: an increase in crime and smuggling and a corresponding increase of unnecessary deaths of human beings trying to migrate to the U.S in brutal and unsafe conditions in the desert. Not to mention, a border wall has devastating effects on wildlife, such as the Quino Checkerspot Butterfly that lives along the border and cannot fly over objects taller than six to eight feet.

Photo by @ermelinphotos via Twenty20

Photo by @ermelinphotos via Twenty20


14. If we don’t secure our borders, won’t we be more vulnerable to terrorism and drug dealers?

No. Currently, billions of dollars are spent on stopping human migration. This is not the real threat: our neighbors are not a threat and their families abroad, for whom they often work to support, are not a threat either.

Border security, although seemingly innocuous as a concept, actually means the widespread use of militarization and surveillance to make border-crossing, and the mere fact of being around the border, intrinsically dangerous. As “border security” has increased, cartels have expanded from the drug trade to human smuggling, putting vulnerable migrants at risk for human trafficking and extortion, among other abuses. At the border itself, migrants have been murdered by the U.S. state and white supremacist vigilante militias that patrol the border.  We should focus less on “securing the border” and more on securing ourselves and our communities from the devastating results of current U.S. policies related to drugs, violence, poverty, and incarceration.

To put it into perspective, according to the Cato Institute, the chance of a U.S. citizen being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an undocumented immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year. In contrast, the chance of being struck by lightning is just 1 in 700,000 in any one year.

Instead of diverting funds to stopping families from being reunited and preventing persecuted individuals from seeking safe haven in the U.S., we should recognize and address the true causes of community concerns such as terrorism and drug epidemics around the world. This in turn would help ensure that migration would always be a safe, voluntary, and rational choice.  


15. Does ending immigration detention mean open borders?

No. Freedom for Immigrants believes that people have the right to travel and migrate freely, and that given our modern economy, countries should be allowed to maintain their sovereignty.  These are not conflicting concepts.  When we end immigration detention, the sovereignty of each government and their borders will remain.  In fact, state sovereignty will be strengthened when governments end immigration detention because more resources may go toward addressing domestic issues rather than caging people searching for a better life.

In ending immigration detention, countries should also reform their immigration policy to ensure there is a stronger match between migration patterns and immigration laws.  For example, in the United States those who are undocumented in the country right now have been failed by our modern quota system.  Instead of migrating to the United States to be with their family through a green card, they either have to migrate in the shadows or wait decades because no more than 7% of the total number of visas in a particular category may be granted to persons from any given country of origin.  The problem is that our immigration quotas provide so few opportunities for people from Mexico, for example, to enter the country legally.  Therefore, people are forced to migrate without documentation and risk detention in order to unite with family, find work to support their families back home, or escape persecution.  

If migration laws matched migration patterns, rather than irrationally restricting them, no one would be undocumented.  No one would be at risk for detention or deportation.  Governments would know who resides within their borders and who does not, contributing to stronger nations.  And the world's GDP would double, according to economists.

Instead of trying to fight back against the charge that we are in favor of “open borders,” we seek to identify and strengthen the movements in society that are actively demanding and creating a new world, no matter which side of any border they happen to lie on.  


16. Where is public opinion on immigration detention?

Tracking public opinion on immigration detention globally is nearly impossible. What we do know is that immigration detention across the world, and public sentiment seems to ebb and flow with media coverage.

In the United States, unfortunately, we also don’t know public opinion of immigration detention because no one is asking. Polls on attitudes about immigration in the United States are fairly common, but there have been no national polls on immigration detention. The Pew Research Center has only surveyed Latinos on this issue in 2013, determining that 6 in 10 registered Latinos disapproved of the way the Obama administration was handling detention and deportation.

In 2016, the Field Poll conducted an independent and nonpartisan survey in California. They found that 3 in 4 Californians believe that private immigrant prisons should be abolished. This same poll found that 68% of Californians favor community alternatives over incarceration.    

No one is asking you what you think about immigration detention because very few people are even talking about immigration detention.  In 2017, Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC) published a 77-page report on how immigration detention has been portrayed in the media. What did we find?  It’s not being covered!  Between 2009 and 2016, there were only 50 to 350 articles published on immigration detention each year.  The good news, though, is that immigration detention is becoming increasingly visible in the media and in the halls of Congress.

While neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party have been traditionally supportive of decreasing or ending immigration detention, the Democratic Party in its 2016 platform pledged the following: “We will fight to end federal, state, and municipal contracts with for-profit private prisons and private detention centers. In order to end family detention, we will ensure humane alternatives for those who pose no public threat. We recognize that there are vulnerable communities within our immigration system who are often seeking refuge from persecution abroad, such as LGBT families, for whom detention can be unacceptably dangerous.”

And in 2013, the bipartisan so called “Gang of Eight” in Congress decided to include a provision in the 2013 immigration reform bill that provided for immigrants to be released on alternatives to immigration detention, including immigrants who currently are not able to gain release until their win their case or are deported. This bill passed the Senate, but died in the House.  

And in 2017, when Freedom for Immigrants ran an amendment to the federal budget with the support of Representative Pramila Jayapal, every Democrat except for 5 members voted in favor of putting a moratorium on immigration detention expansion.