Dignity in Migration, Not Detention
Image credit: Anita White, Immigration Court Observation Project
Given the existence of over 200 immigration prisons across the United States, including long-term centers here in Minnesota, the border is not a fixed location. Immigrant detention is a local issue everywhere. And, despite how immigrants strengthen Minnesota, the government continues to target immigrants and harm local communities through the practice of immigrant detention.
Local jails that contract with ICE receive millions in tax dollars for
detaining migrants in beds they may or may not fill. Too often, local governments treat these
dollars like general revenue, spending money on unrelated
infrastructure rather than on providing language services, healthcare, outdoor
recreation facilities, or even basic clothing and toiletries, to the people ICE
places in their care and custody.
Beyond origins rooted in racism, the criminal
injustice system mirrors, and feeds into, the immigration system. Virtually
none of the people who call our office from jail in search of immigration legal
help are white. Folks facing deportation from behind bars are overwhelmingly
Black, Southeast Asian, Indigenous, or other BIPOC people. This is not an
accident. Policing and incarceration systems intersect with and impact
deportations, amplifying racial bias in immigration
enforcement - especially anti-Black racism.
And racism within the criminal legal system increases BIPOC immigrants' risk of
encounters with ICE.
Some folks who call us from detention have been part
of our community for 10, 20, 30 years or more. Others have arrived more recently
to reunite with family or seek asylum from persecution in their country,
sometimes having arrived as child refugees from U.S.-stoked wars
abroad. But all experience isolation, including separation from family and
community, while detailed. Family separation is pervasive throughout the U.S.
immigration system, as anytime someone is deported or detained a community is
disrupted. While in immigration custody, people are cut off from the outside
Access to legal help is extremely hard to come by, let
alone access to one's personal support network. Phone minutes cost an
exorbitant rate, another piece of how the prison industrial complex profits
off of immigrants' incarceration. People may be transferred to prisons hundreds
of miles or more away from their loved ones, making in-person
visitation almost impossible. (Federal immigration authorities have long used
transfer to remote locations to isolate people and facilitate deportation. Read
the 1989 report by our factfinding team on the
Oakdale Detention Center.) Covid visitation restrictions further limit people's
contact with the outside world for those who have the means to travel to the
detention center during visitation hours. Then, if someone loses their
immigration case, they face potentially permanent family separation on account
In addition to the harm caused by family separation,
people's health deteriorates rapidly while detained. The air, food, and water
quality in prisons is poor. Access to sunlight and freedom of
movement is limited, even more so in the pandemic. Of the three jails in
Minnesota that currently detain noncitizens during their immigration
proceedings - often for months
or even years - only one has an outdoor recreation area,
and it is small. Detained people are not normally given coats or sweatshirts to
go outside (sweatshirts are available for purchase in the commissary), further
limiting access. Migrants sometimes go years without ever seeing the sun, let
alone birds or flowers. Inside, access to community with fellow detainees is
slim, further compounded by potential language barriers.
Medical concerns are often ignored, if even heard in
the first place. The news of forced hysterectomies in a detention center Georgia in
2020 is just one example of how medical abuse and neglect is
intentionally directed towards noncitizens in ICE detention. Medical neglect or
abuse isn't the outlier, it is the norm. And while detained immigrants
in Minnesota thankfully have not reported this particular abuse, The Advocates
and our partners have documented serious problems. Pervasive problems
with medical care in Minnesota's jails led to the Minnesota legislature's
passage last year of the Hardel Sherrell Act. The law, named after a
27-year-old Black man who died in the Beltrami County jail in 2018, strengthens
oversight over Minnesota jails. Rulemaking is expected later this year.
Immigrant detention has profound negative mental
health impacts which some advocates have characterized as psychological torture. In addition to limited
contact with one's community, access to information on the status of one's
immigration case is also limited while imprisoned by ICE, further feeding into
the feeling of limbo. People are removed from their cells for deportation at
any time of the day or night, leaving a pervasive feeling of instability and
danger because deportation can
be a death sentence for asylum seekers, refugees, and
As service providers, we hear from clients how the
mental health services in detention fail them. Often, the only
"treatment" suicidal people receive is to be put in solitary
confinement, a practice known to heighten risk of
completing suicide. Solitary confinement is also used arbitrarily,
sometimes as punishment and sometimes just so the jail can detain more people.
And while the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the
Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, state
that solitary confinement should be used only as a last resort, is prohibited
in excess of 15 days, and should never be used for people with a mental or
physical disability, people too often face prolonged, indefinite solitary
confinement in Minnesota jails.
All in all, the immigrant detention system treats
people as though they are disposable commodities. People disappeared by ICE
(whether detained, deported, or both) in Minnesota often have longstanding ties
with the community, face persecution if deported, or both. Our community is
harmed with every instance of detention. At the end of the day, the immigrant
detention system is largely arbitrary in terms of who is detained and who
isn't, routinely violating international
This doesn't need to be the way the United States
responds to migration. The Global Compact for Migration calls
on governments to promote the dignity and well-being of migrants and
to detain people only as a last resort. Divesting from enforcement and
investing in community-based supports provides a real
roadmap to moving beyond the detention-first paradigm.
Detention causes irreparable harms, and the system can
and should be changed.
Julia Valero is a Paralegal & Intake Coordinator with The Advocates for Human Rights' Refugee & Immigrant Program, where she brings a grounding in an abolitionist, holistic, and client-centered approach to immigration legal advocacy.
John Bruning is a Staff Attorney with The Advocates' Refugee & Immigrant Program.