by Cindy Knoebel
It's a known fact that the United States has the largest immigrant detention system in the world, but how did we get here? The expansion of immigration detention centers, and the number of people incarcerated in them, has expanded exponentially over the past four decades. And with that expansion has come hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of physical and sexual abuse, medical neglect, and unsanitary conditions.
“Detained,” a new report by Emily Kassie and issued jointly by the Marshall Project and The Guardian, chronicles this expansion – and the multi-billion-dollar for-profit industry it created.
Four compelling videos document the political history of the US immigration detention system, beginning in the 1980s during President Jimmy Carter’s administration when thousands of Cubans came to America seeking asylum from Fidel Castro’s regime.
One video from the report features Tony Hefner, a prison guard at an immigrant detention facility in the 1980’s. “[People] were shoved around, humiliated and called names,” he remembers. He also talks about how immigrant women were brought to the facility in the middle of the night and sexually abused by guards. “We were told to keep our mouths shut and say nothing,” he says. In the early 1990s he finally came forward and began writing letters to government officials and documenting what he had witnessed.
This harsh reality hasn’t changed at all. In fact, it has worsened over the years as the average daily population of detained immigrants has soared from 2,371 in 1979 to more than 52,000 in September of this year. During this same period, the average number of days for people in detention rose from 3 to 33, according to the report. Through our volunteer visitor network and letters sent to us by detained immigrants, Freedom for Immigrants has had access to a wealth of information and first-hand accounts of life in detention that make it abundantly clear that the cruel and inhume conditions described by Hefner continue to this day, albeit on a breathtakingly larger scale.
Following Carter’s administration President Reagan switched to an ideologically-driven immigration policy. Fearing the spread of Communism, the US sought to provide refuge chiefly to those escaping leftist regimes. “The Reagan administration’s approach to Central American migrants was intimately tied to Cold War fears that socialist-inspired political movements in Central America were acting as the tip of the Soviet spear,” César García Hernández, author of Crimigation Law, says in one of the report’s videos. When the Reagan administration turned its attention to combating crime and drugs, the power of local police to arrest and detain immigrants caught up in the war on drugs was greatly expanded, giving rise to the term “criminal aliens.”
In the wake of the first World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, and a growing anti-immigration movement, President Clinton’s administration tightened the laws under which immigrants – even legal ones – could be detained to include such minor offenses as shoplifting, gambling, theft, and low-level drug charges. “Now,” according to another video in the report,"any legal migrant convicted of one these crimes would be detained and deported.”
The report notes the number of people in immigration detention on any given day rose from over 6,000 in 1994 to over 19,000 in 2000 – and the private prison industry, including GEO Group and CoreCivic, took note. Today, these profit-driven corporations manage about 70 percent of immigration detention centers in the country.
Then came the presidency of George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security – and ICE. By 2007, the average daily number of detained immigrants had reached 30,000.
Fast forward to the Obama years. During the course of his presidency, more than 3 million people were deported, earning him the title “Deporter-in-Chief.” And the number of unaccompanied minors began to increase rapidly. They were shuttled to shelters under custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, while families that arrived from Central America were sent to ICE detention centers.
But the worst was yet to come, with President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, under which immigrants crossing the borders started to be processed as criminals – and children were forcibly separated from their parents at the border. Media reports and photos of children crowded into fenced pens went viral, sparking a national outrage.
The story of Roxana, an asylum seeker, is featured in the report. In 2017 she was forced to run away from her life in Honduras to save her two children from gang violence and her husband, a hired assassin, who threatened to kill her. She was apprehended at the border and separated from her children. “My life in detention was hell,” Roxana recounts in the video, “because I didn’t know how to take care of them, because I didn’t know where they were." Roxana didn’t see her children for a year. When they were finally reunited, she says she thought they would hug her. “Instead,” she says, “my children hid themselves because they thought I’d given them away.”
Forty years of detention in America has not stopped the flow of migrants. The number of people crossing the border seeking safety and freedom keeps increasing, fueling a thriving industry run mostly by private prison companies. And it hasn’t solved the issues that led to the creation of today's sprawling immigration detention system: an increasing number of migrants escaping violence, sexual discrimination and poverty in their home countries. Many languish for years in unsanitary, inhumane facilities while fighting their cases, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. And the human cost? That can only be calculated in tears shed, lives lost, families torn apart and hearts broken.
For more statistics on immigration detention, visit Freedom for Immigrants' interactive map and statistics page.