Skip to content

Special Flight

Premiere Date: July 1, 2013

'Special Flight' in Context

Immigration Detention in the United States

With 961 sites directly owned by or under contract with the federal government, the United States has the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world. In 2009, these sites were reported to have a capacity of 33,400 detainees. According to the Global Detention Project, 18,690 of these detainees had no criminal convictions, and more than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for more than one year.

Detention facilities in the United States typically operate under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Since the detainees are in federal custody, they can be placed in any facility in the country where the ICE has a contract, regardless of the detainee’s home. For example, in March 2007, 361 workers were arrested at a factory in the state of Massachusetts and many were moved to facilities in Texas within 48 hours.

Nearly two-thirds of immigrant detainees are held in local jails, and the Global Detention Project reports that local law enforcement agencies profit substantially off of confining immigrants. In 2008, the federal government paid nearly $55.2 million to 13 local California jails housing detainees.

The ways in which immigrants end up in detention centers and prisons have come under scrutiny in recent years. The immigration system is not a criminal system—it is a civil one—so the Department of Homeland Security has discretion to apprehend immigrants it suspects of being in the country illegally. Amnesty International outlines the various ways immigrants are detained: Individuals may be apprehended at the border, during employment or household raids, as a result of traffic stops by local police or after having been convicted of a federal offense.

Immigrants in the United States, like the detainees in Switzerland portrayed in Special Flight, are often detained after living in the country for decades as taxpayers who hold jobs, have families and have no criminal records. There have also been many accusations against detention centers for acts of physical and mental abuse. In 2008, The New York Times published under the Freedom of Information Act a list of 107 people who had died in U.S. immigration detention centers since 2003. Immigrant detainees in the United States spend an average of 31 days in detention while awaiting deportation, while asylum seekers spend an average of 64 days.

In recent years, however, the ICE has made improvements to its system. Unaccompanied, illegal minors are now housed in church-run shelters or halfway houses overseen by the Global Detention Project. Conditions in these facilities are superior to those in prisons and they are funded by different programs. The ICE has also established Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) to make immigration laws more transparent and effective. ERO prioritizes only immigrants who pose a threat to national security. For those who are detained, the ICE vows to provide access to legal resources and advocacy groups.

The financial aspects of detention are also of interest. In 2008, through intergovernmental service agreements the federal government paid almost $55.2 billion to house detainees. According to the National Immigration Forum, the cost to detain an immigrant is $164 per day. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is currently requesting more funding for ICE operations. If the ICE were to jail only immigrants who have taken part in illegal acts, taxpayers would save $1.6 billion per year. The National Immigration Forum proposes that immigrants accused of crimes be detained and the rest be monitored.

According to the ICE, the annual number of deportations has been stable in the past few years: 370,000 in 2008; 390,000 in 2009; 393,000 in 2010; and 397,000 in 2011. An ICE spokesperson recently stated that that body is “Congressionally funded to remove 400,000 a year.”

Illegal immigrants detained by federal officials are usually deported back to their home countries without being informed of their legal right to counsel or being put in touch with their home country consular officials. As punishment for unlawful presence in the United States, undocumented immigrants must return to their native countries to wait out bans lasting three to 10 years before applying for legal residency (assuming they have legal ways to immigrate, which many do not).

While there has been an absence of comprehensive federal immigration reform in recent years, it has been a frequent subject of state-level legislation. Many states have advanced laws similar to Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070, which in 2011 made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant. In late June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against much of SB 1070, but it did uphold a provision allowing police officers to check the immigration status of people they detain.

» Amnesty International. “Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA.”
» Bernstein, Nina. “Officials Hid Truth of Immigrant Deaths in Jail.” The New York Times, January 9, 2010.
» “Deportation flights to Mexico cost $51 million.” Associated Press, August 10, 2008.
» Global Detention Project. “United States Detention Profile.”
» National Immigration Forum. “The Math of Immigration Detention: Runaway Costs for Immigration Detention Do Not Add Up to Sensible Policies.”
» POV. “Sin País.”
» U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary. “Written Testimony of U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for a House Committee on the Judiciary Hearing Titled ‘Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.’”

Are you aware of our Comment Policy?

* Your email address is for verification purposes only and will not be published, shared, or sold to other entities.