Immigration detention is the profit-driven government practice of incarcerating human beings while they wait for a decision on their immigration status or future deportation.


What is immigration detention?

Nearly every country in the world has a form of immigration detention, and the United States has the largest and oldest immigration detention system in the world.  Since 1983, prison corporations have been selling immigration detention as the only possible state response to migration worldwide. Human rights violations have led to nearly 200 reported deaths in U.S. immigration detention since 2003, when the government began tracking deaths in detention. 


Although immigration detention can be triggered by criminal charges, immigration detention is an administrative — or civil — form of confinement in most countries.

What this means is that people in immigration detention lack the safeguards of the criminal legal system, which can result in: 

  1. Lack of access to the outside world (including access to legal counsel),

  2. Inability to challenge detention through the courts, and

  3. No limitation on the length of detention.


How the U.S. began to detain immigrants

It all started in the United States. The first immigration detention facility in the world was Ellis Island in the New York Bay, which opened on January 2, 1892. 

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After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 in the United States, the main function of Ellis Island changed from that of an immigrant processing station to a detention facility for those entering the United States without documentation or who had violated the terms of admittance. Off the coast of San Francisco, the Angel Island Immigration Station opened in 1910 and was established as a site to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Similar to immigration laws today, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted as a result of economic depression that increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.

And like many immigrant prisons and jails operating across the world today, Angel Island and Ellis Island were isolated and people were detained indefinitely. 

The Immigration & Nationality Act of 1952 temporarily ended the practice of mass immigration detention in the United States.


The expansion of U.S. immigration detention

The existence of the modern U.S. immigration detention system is relatively new.

Watch this video below featuring Freedom for Immigrants to learn more about the expansion of immigrant detention and what drives it: profit.

In the early 1980s, fewer than 30 people were held in detention on any given day. But in that same decade, two corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now called CoreCivic, successfully lobbied the government to expand detention and other forms of incarceration. The first federal contracts that GEO Group and CCA/CoreCivic won were for new immigrant prisons, one in Texas and another in Colorado.  

The Adelanto Detention Facility in California is operated by GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit, private prison companies. About two-thirds of all people in U.S. immigration detention are held in private prisons. Freedom for Immigrants volunteers gather outside of the prison in solidarity with people in detention on World Refugee Day.

The Adelanto Detention Facility in California is operated by GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit, private prison companies. About two-thirds of all people in U.S. immigration detention are held in private prisons. Freedom for Immigrants volunteers gather outside of the prison in solidarity with people in detention on World Refugee Day.

In 1996, President Clinton passed two laws that radically changed our immigration system for the worse. 

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) allowed the United States to:

1. Indefinitely detain about half of the people in immigration detention by taking away discretion from judges to grant release on bond,

2. Deport lawful permanent residents (i.e. green card holders), including U.S. veterans, and

3. Require survivors of persecution abroad to be detained immediately upon asking for asylum at its borders. 

These laws remain in effect, resulting in mass detentions of immigrants everyday who are unable to access a court-appointed attorney, a free phone call, or a speedy trial. 



How private prison companies profit off of immigrants

The United States government contracts with both private prison corporations and public jails to imprison people in immigration detention. In fact, this is the case in many countries. 

Research to date on private prisons has found that they are neither cheaper nor do they commit fewer abuses than publicly operated immigrant jails. 

On some issues, such as sexual assault, there is more abuse in private prisons than government-run immigrant jails in the United States. Research also has shown that there is no guaranteed cost-savings associated with private prisons.

For example, in the United States, taxpayers spend $149.58 on average to detain a person in a private immigrant prisons per day, compared to an average of $98.27 in a municipal jail.

When referring to immigrant prisons and jails, the labels “private” and “public” are deceiving because both kinds of facilities profit from imprisoning immigrants by running their operations well below the cost they are paid from taxpayers.

In addition to the private prison corporations and the municipalities that profit from detention, a plethora of other companies exist to poorly and expensively construct and manage immigrant prisons and jails, run the medical clinics, provide the food, run the commissaries, and manage the telephone systems.


Learn about the history, laws and unjust realities of the U.S. immigration detention system in this short 5-minute Freedom for Immigrants explainer. 


The global influence of the U.S. immigration detention system

The United States’ immigration detention system has influenced the infrastructure of detention systems in other countries, including those in Europe and Latin America.


After European member states signed the Schengen agreement in 1990, private prison companies began lobbying member states to secure the external borders of the European Union by detaining immigrants.

In the United Kingdom, the first European country to have outsourced detention to private companies, a U.S. citizen died at a GEO-run immigration detention facility in 2011; a jury found that his death was in part due to medical neglect at the Harmondsworth Removal Centre.

Australia’s first private prison was operated by Corrections Corporation of Australia, an international venture of the U.S.-based CCA/CoreCivic. South Africa’s and New Zealand’s first private prisons were operated by GEO Group.

Despite thousands of lawsuits against private prisons worldwide—ranging from sexual battery to medical neglect to wrongful death—private immigration detention continues to expand.

The “success” of these publicly-traded, U.S.-based multi-national prison corporations have inspired the founding of others, such as Management & Training Corporation (MTC), G4S, Mitie, Serco, Tascor, GEPSA, Emerald Correctional Management, and Community Education Centers.

Immigration detention in all forms needs to be abolished. As long as these corporations are guaranteed profits for imprisoning immigrants, immigration detention will continue to exist.

Freedom for Immigrants starts with you!