Children sleeping on floors, changing other children’s diapers. Families torn apart at the border. Migrants crammed into fetid detention centers. These have become familiar sights as people fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse and poverty arrive on the southern border of the United States. Many will join more than 52,000 immigrants confined in jails, prisons, tents and other forms of detention – most of them for profit.
The United States’ reliance on immigrant detention is not a new phenomenon, nor did it emerge with Donald Trump (though its growth under his administration is staggering). Over the last four decades, a series of emergency stopgaps and bipartisan deals has created a new multibillion-dollar industry built on the incarceration of immigrants.
The people held in prison-like facilities across the country are not serving time for a crime. They’re waiting for a hearing to determine whether they can legally remain in the country while being kept in what is considered “civil detention”, intended to ensure that people show up for those hearings. Detention, once reserved only for those who threatened public safety or posed a flight risk, is now ubiquitous.
Immigrants, including asylum seekers and legal migrants, wait an average of more than four weeks to be released, though some have been held inside for years or even decades. Up to 2,500 are children and parents fleeing war and violence in their home countries. Thousands have alleged sexual and physical abuse inside the facilities.
Forty years ago, this system did not exist.
A modest system holding fewer than 3,000 migrants a day at the end of the 1970s, detention has now morphed into a sprawling machinery ensnaring immigrants across the country. And facilities operated under both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and the border patrol continue to come under fire for holding people in squalid conditions with minimal access to hygiene and medical care.
While the population of people in detention has grown, so has the government budget to fund the beds to hold them. Billions of American taxpayer dollars are now allocated to support a system where for-profit companies hold the vast majority of immigrants. In fiscal year 2018, private prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group derived 25% and 20% of their profits respectively from Ice, which is now their biggest client. In the same year, Ice spent over $250m on contracts with GEO Group and another $60m with CoreCivic.
Ice also runs alternatives to detention programs, including electronic monitoring, phone check-ins and home visits. More than 98,373 people are currently on electronic monitoring, according to Ice. Where Ice pays several hundred dollars per person per day in detention, alternative programs cost an average of $4.42 a day.
With illegal immigration at the heart of the debate over US immigration policy, the number of undocumented immigrants has grown from less than 1 million in the 1970s to just under 11 million today, about 3% of the US population.
Although the number of undocumented immigrants has actually declined since 2007, the government is locked in a stalemate over how to deal with those still here and those who continue to arrive.
Even as the numbers held in detention have expanded, actual apprehensions at the US-Mexico border by the border patrol and in the interior by Ice have fluctuated, declining overall since 2000, and spiking again this year. Trump administration enforcement measures have not deterred the most recent surge, made up mostly of Central American families fleeing instability and violence.
The number of detention facilities soared in the 1990s. Then, by 2017 the number declined as privately run facilities began to replace some of the smaller local jails.
Ten per cent of detainees are in Ice-run facilities, 20% are in county and local jails, and the rest are in facilities run by private corporations. Though unaccompanied children are placed in facilities operated by health and human services, more than 500 children and parents are currently detained by Ice. And the Trump administration has made new efforts to remove the 20-day time limit for detaining migrant children.
As the race for the 2020 presidential election heats up, Democratic candidates have clamored to decry Trump’s immigration policies.
Nearly all candidates support an end to detention for asylum-seeking families. In Senator Elizabeth Warren’s immigration plan, she promises to reserve detention for extreme cases of safety or flight risks. Senator Bernie Sanders told the Washington Post: “We must promote and implement these cheaper, more effective and more humane alternatives to keeping children and families detained in overcrowded, understaffed and ad-hoc facilities.” The former vice-president Joe Biden also pledged to end the detention of children in a private meeting with Boldpac, a political action committee.
In the meantime Trump continues to redirect funding from the US Coast Guard and other agencies to a detention system whose daily population has grown by more than 40% since he took office. And it’s only getting bigger.