By Dr. Sue Weishar, Migration Specialist
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security operates the largest detention system in the world.1 During FY 2010, almost 400,000 immigrants were detained in a patchwork of facilities—mostly penal institutions— in more than 300 locations run largely by county or state law enforcement authorities or private contractors with little direct federal oversight2—at a cost of $1.77 billion.3 Reports of abuse and neglect of immigrants in detention facilities across the country are numerous and disturbing.4
The system for detaining immigrants in this country has largely been unplanned and its conceptualization deeply flawed. If the purpose of the deportation process is to accomplish the administrative tasks required to remove from the U.S. individuals found to be lacking legal remedy to remain in the country, then persons need only be detained when found to be a flight risk or a danger to the public. If they must be held to complete their processing for removal— again, an administrative task—then they should be held in facilities where such processing can occur without the collateral harm to one’s dignity and personal liberty which is inevitable when immigrants are held in jails and prisons—facilities built and operated to punish people. Instead, the detention paradigm favored by U.S. immigration officials for many years has been to detain as many persons as possible in prison-like conditions.
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