Winning the Wrong Contest: Immigration Detention in the United States

By: Lyda Ryan

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

It is said that “immigration law in the United States has been built upon the following principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.” While this statement brings together excellent principles for what the immigration system in the US should be founded upon, these principals are little more than an unrealistic representation of what the US immigration laws represent today. In reality, the immigration laws and system in the US often bring little more than stress and fear to the hundreds of thousands of people that are threatened and affected by these laws and the resulting system in their everyday lives.

The United States has always prided itself on being the biggest and best. Yet, I am not sure anyone could be proud that the U.S. operates the world’s largest immigration detention system. In 2019, the United States maintained over 500,000 people in detention centers across the country, which included 76,020 migrant children. And running the world’s largest immigration system is not cheap. Funding to the Department of Homeland Security and it’s agencies tasked with enforcing our immigration laws has nearly tripled from the time of its creation in 2003 to nearly 8.3 billon dollars today. However, despite the amount of human lives being placed in their care, and the astronomical amount of funding agencies such as ICE receives, many detention centers across the United States are largely unregulated, including medical treatment, mental health care, religious services, transfers, access to telephones, free legal services, and library materials. Additionally, while data from the federal government suggest that 70% of immigrants are detained for a month or less, Freedom for Immigrants reports that approximately 48% of the immigrants they work with have been held in immigration detention centers anywhere from two to four years, with an additional 5% of people being held for longer than four years, and only 7% of people being held for less than six months.

With the surge of COVID-19 in the United States, a desperately needed light was shone upon the conditions and treatment of immigrants at detention and holding centers across the United States. However, as with many things, what is out of sight is often out of mind. Many of us are fortunate enough to not be faced with the worries that come with being an immigrant in the United States today. However, simply because something is not personally happening to us does not mean that that it is not occurring. Injustices resulting from the current United States immigration laws and detention system are occurring and growing every day, and as such, the results of these injustices are continuing to grow as well. Since April of 2018, thirty-five people have died while in the custody of ICE, at least half of which could have been prevented. Of these thirty five people, nine died by suicide and twenty-six died from medical causes. Since 2003, over 200 people have died in ICE custody.

While the United States immigration laws are complex, the issues we are faced with today concerning these laws and the current immigration detention system are not. Immigrants are people just like you and me, and they are being held in detention centers without proper medical and mental health care, access to their families or to legal representation. As a result, people are suffering, and they are dying. Things do not have to be this way, and were never intended to be this way. It is time to stand up and fight for a change. We as Americans should be fighting for those who have lived here with us for years, if not our whole lives, raising their families and contributing to our communities as our neighbors and friends. It is time to fight for what is right, and we can start by putting focus where it is deserved. No more turning a blind eye. Immigration laws were intended to reunite families, admit immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protect refugees, and promote diversity. That is what our immigration system should be and what we should all be fighting for it to become. That is a system America can be proud of.


Posted in: Legal Comentary

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