Excerpted From: Ariadna Quinares Navarrete, Having Decency Towards Immigrants Requires the Abolition of For-profit Detention Centers, 22 Seattle Journal for Social Justice 121 (Fall, 2023) (161 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AriadnaNavarrette.jpegThe United States has been described as an “[i]ncarceration nation” due to its status of having the highest incarceration rate amongst nations. Incarceration is used by the United States in many forms, especially immigration detention, which further exacerbates the issue of high incarceration. The purpose of this article is to shine light on the immigration issue and to encourage the development of legislation that will bring forth an end to the inhumane treatment of undocumented persons in the United States. First, Part I of this article examines both the history and currnt state of immigration detention. Next, Part II of this article discusses the background of the immigration detention issue at both the national and local levels. Then, Part III addresses the issue by proposing the closure of for-profit detention centers in all states. Finally, Part IV responds to potential setbacks that may arise in pushing such legislation forward.

Being detained is equivalent to being imprisoned for a crime, except that the crime, in this case, is merely being an undocumented person seeking safety and pursuing the “American Dream.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asserts that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions are for noncitizens who are physically booked into ICE custody and do “not include those under U.S. Marshall custody, Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) custody, or transportation facilities.” However, some international human rights bodies, such as the International Detention Coalition, have defined immigration detention as “the holding in detention of individuals suspected of illegal entry, unauthorized arrival, visa violations, and those subject to procedures for deportation and removal.” Similarly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) defines “incarceration” as the “long-term confinement of convicted and sentenced offenders.” As these definitions indicate, undocumented persons in detention are often compared to individuals in penal confinement. The similarity in the definitions of immigration detention and incarceration allude to the fact that the treatment that immigrants receive is parallel to being incarcerated.

Undocumented persons are often portrayed as being a “threat to public safety, locked behind barbed wire, [ ... ] in remote facilities, and subjected to the detailed control emblematic of all secure environments.” While detention is not technically long-term like incarceration, it is unknown how long those who are detained will be confined until they are either released or removed to their country of origin. While it is true that immigration detention centers and prisons are not the same per se, “there are many ways in which immigration enforcement and criminal justice form part of the same carceral regime and occupy the same carceral space.” For example, detention centers also function in many different places, including land and sea borders, in the “international zones;” in airports, on islands, on boats, or even in closed refugee camps. This means that you can get detained and locked in a holding cell in these places until the government can transfer you to a detention center.

Over the past several decades, the prison industrial complex has “expanded to include undocumented immigrants and other noncitizen residents residing within the USA.” After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2011, criminalizing and detaining immigrants accelerated significantly. During the fiscal year of 2017, the United States admitted 323,591 individuals into ICE detention. Since then, ICE has increasingly contracted with private prison corporations to detain immigrants. Most notably, ICE contracts with Geo Group Inc. to use their facilities for immigration detention. Geo Group is a Florida-based company that owns, leases, and operates prisons, immigration detention centers, and residential reentry centers in the U.S., Australia, and South Africa.

Among immigrant rights activists, Geo Group is the corporation most known for owning for-profit detention centers throughout the country. In fact, Geo Group is the world's second-largest private prison company only behind Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic. Immigrant rights activists are concerned with private immigration detention centers because many suspect that private prison corporations “focus more on generating a profit than on the safety and security of the inmates they house.” The companies have denied these accusations. However, private prison companies bid to house migrants, and the government then pays for the migrants' care and custody at a price that greatly profits the company. In 2020, ICE contracts made up twenty-eight percent of the revenue for GEO Group and CoreCivic, including the largest federal client of the private prison industry; DHS. Clearly, Geo Group is a pawn in the anti-immigrant legislative agenda.

In response to this, legislative efforts have been made at the state level. Unfortunately, these state legislatures have failed to consider the negative and catastrophic effects that detention has on the individuals who are detained. Specifically, these legislative efforts burden undocumented persons by attempting to strip undocumented immigrants of their previously held rights. Since the United States' immigration policy is civil law, and not criminal, the Supreme Court has held that immigration detention is legally administrative and not punitive. The Court's holding has resulted in a lack of access to constitutional protections such as the right to counsel for detained immigrants. In addition to the denial of these rights, immigrants are also impacted by a lack of funding and long-term health effects.

In 2016, DHS had a total budget of sixty-four billion dollars, which is over ten times more than the DHS budget (formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services or INS) when it was first created in 2002. Ten times more money than the original amount at the time of creation seems to be more than annual inflation rates. Currently, about half of DHS' budget (roughly thirty billion dollars) is spent on immigration enforcement. Instead of using the thirty billion dollars for harmful practices such as incarceration, the money could be used for other needs such as education, mental health resources, medical resources, and rehabilitation resources.

Like incarceration, detention can have immediate and long-term effects on a person's health. Specifically, detention can lead to a person's poor physical and mental health due to systemic disadvantages, exposure to stressful and unhealthy environments, and limited healthcare during their time in confinement. A study conducted by sociologists in California found that “participants reported fewer stress symptoms following release on bond: seventy percent reported fewer stress symptoms after release, compared to during detention, and ten percent reported the same number of stress symptoms.”

Another significant impact on the quality of life of those who are in detention is family separation. Many people who are deported or detained have children who are U.S. citizens and have grown up in the United States. These children are then forcibly separated from their family once their parents are deported or detained. Economic hardships, housing instability, mental and emotional health challenges, and reduced school performance are all consequences and impacts of family separation that these children are forced to endure. In 2011, about 5,100 children ended up in the foster care system because their parents were detained or deported.

The U.S. through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund promotes the argument that the trend toward the privatization of custodial facilities is an “essential aspect of the global spread of neoliberal policies.” As public policy goals lose sway to economic interests, vulnerable human beings are treated as commodities and traded for profit. On a systemic level, any kind of policy that would limit the use of expensive detention of migrants, except when truly necessary, has the potential to be overridden by private for-profit prison companies. At the individual level, the corruptive influence of economic power works in favor of detention without considering flight risk or danger to the community. However, detention is arbitrary and should be exceptional.

[. . .]

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for the past few presidential terms. It became more prominent and came under greater scrutiny, during the Trump Administration. Now that immigration is at the forefront of political discussions, immigrant rights activists have taken the opportunity to highlight for the world the injustices that immigrants face.

Washington is a good example of how to approach President Biden's executive order on private for-profit prisons. While it is unfortunate that Washington must wait until 2025 to shut down the state's private detention center, it is a good first step in the fight for immigrant rights and the prioritization of human life over profit. Washington must continue to make progressive changes like this to continue to be a good sanctuary state for immigrants. Particularly, Washington should slowly phase out legislation that hurts immigrants rather than helps them until immigrants are afforded their rights.

Further, it is imperative that other states follow in Washington's footsteps by shutting down their private, for-profit detention centers. Although states attempting to do so may not succeed at first, it is important that states continue to fight not only for what Washington has achieved, but for more. The more information there is on immigrants and immigration, the easier it will be to rebut critiques from anti-immigrant groups and politicians. The prevalence of immigration information will also make it easier to convince lawmakers to help immigrants. There is no justification for innocent immigrants, who have come to the United States seeking asylum and safety, to be incarcerated while their cases are pending. Since for-profit detention centers are harmful to immigrants and their families, they should be abolished all throughout the nation.