Immigration Detention 101

The United States government maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system

Immigration detention is the practice of incarcerating immigrants while they await a determination of their immigration status or potential deportation. In 2013, the United States government detained approximately 441,000 people in a sprawling system of over 200 immigration jails across the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that runs the detention system, subcontracts the majority of detention space to county jails and private prison companies. The system also operates under a congressionally mandated quota that requires ICE to maintain 34,000 detention beds at any given time. This policy, known as the detention bed quota, is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system.

Immigrants in detention include undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the U.S. for years and are now facing exile, as well as survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women, and individuals who are seriously ill.

In detention, immigrants are often subjected to harsh conditions of confinement and denied access to adequate medical care, legal counsel and family contact. Since 2003, a reported 155 people have died in immigration custody.


Detention in Numbers

  • Number of beds 34,040
  • Number of people detained each year 441,000 (FY 2013 – latest numbers)
  • Cost per day $124 for adult detention
    $343 for family detention
  • Detention budget $2.3 billion (FY 2016)
  • Number of facilities 209
  • Percent operated by private companies 62 percent
  • Number of deaths since 2003 167

History of Immigration Detention in the United States

The United States is the world’s leading incarcerator with over two million people in prisons and jails across the country. As the U.S. expanded prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, the detention of immigrants, once a little known practice, began to take shape.

In the early 1980s several thousand Cuban and Haitian refugees arriving on Florida’s shores each year were swept into newly opened detention facilities. Immigration policy began to emulate the criminal justice system in the late ‘80s when, during the height of the War on Drugs, Congress amended the Immigration and Naturalization Act to require the mandatory detention of immigrants with certain criminal convictions. This meant that their detention was automatic and compulsory, without a hearing or any consideration of their circumstances.

The 1990s brought on a paradigm shift in immigration policy, leading to detention being a primary means of immigration enforcement. In 1996, the U.S. enacted legislation that dramatically expanded the use of detention. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded mandatory detention. The 1996 laws also rendered any non-U.S. citizen, including legal permanent residents, vulnerable to detention and deportation.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS was divided into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It also moved from the Department of Justice to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration was now a national security issue and nowhere was this clearer than in ICE’s strategic plan for 2003-2012, Operation Endgame, which stated its purpose to, “promote the public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of all removable aliens through the fair and effective enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.”

Under the Obama administration, the implementation of the detention bed quota and the expansion of deportation programs such as 287(g), Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program, have funneled thousands of immigrants into detention centers. In 2014, we saw even more detention expansion when the White House responded to an influx of Central American refugee families with the resurgence of family detention.

The drastic expansion of mandatory detention combined with a skyrocketing detention budget has created a sprawling and unaccountable system of mass detention. As a result, the number of individuals detained has grown dramatically. The average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 34,000 in 2014.

After three decades of expansion, the detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year.