December 01, 2021

Update on Immigrant Detention

Immigration detention is the detention of people who are awaiting deportation and those suspected of visa violations, illegal entry, or other civil violations. The American immigration detention system is the largest in the world and has grown twenty-fold since 1979 and by 75% in the first decade of the 21st century. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) each use immigration detention facilities, while unaccompanied children are taken care of by the Office of Refugee Resettlement [1].

Even though the number of detained people has fallen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, on any day more than 50,000 people are held in the U.S. immigration system. There are over 200 immigration detention facilities, including private facilities, jails, juvenile detention facilities, field offices, and so-called family residential centers, totaling a cost of 16 billion dollars in 2016 [2]. The use of mandatory immigrant detention was expanded in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which resulted in the expansion of the definition of an aggravated felony to include any crime of violence, theft, or burglary for which imprisonment is at least one year, as well as illegal trafficking in drugs, firearms, or destructive devices. Immigrants convicted of those crimes must be sent to immigrant detention where they will have limited recourse for judicial review and without the option of bond [3].

The conditions of immigration detention facilities often do not meet humanitarian standards set by ICE. The medical care received by inmates has been judged as subpar. Conditions have additionally resulted in increased spread of COVID-19, with there being more than 7,500 COVID-19 cases in immigration detention facilities between April and September 2021 [4]. Additionally, detainees are required to work in some places for a dollar a day, and there have been claims of sexual and physical abuse [5].            

Asians in immigration detention facilities experience additional hardships on top of subpar living conditions. For example, the lack of Asian language translators in immigration detention facilities makes communication exceedingly difficult [6]. For Asians whose religion forbids them from eating meat, there are few vegan or vegetarian food options [7]. Bangladeshi migrants were put into solitary confinement for refusing to work for a dollar a day [8]. Turbans and beards, vital parts of many South Asian religions, have also been banned by many immigrant detention centers [9]. 

A noteworthy case of the inhumanity suffered by Asians in immigrant detention centers is the case of Ajay Kumar, who was part of the influx of Indians seeking asylum from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s majoritarian policies. Kumar, along with a few other Indians also detained at a Texas detention center went on hunger strike due to the indignities they suffered. During this time, they were force fed, which is considered by the WHO and US Army to be immoral due to its humiliating and painful nature. When one of Kumar’s fellow hunger strikers was force fed, the process of inserting the nasal tube resulted in the detainee spitting up blood and forced that detainee to immediately cease hunger striking. Kumar, however, went on to strike for 74 days until he was released, partially blind and wheelchair bound, to the care of a sponsor [10].

Learn more about the current status of immigration legislation in the U.S. by watching the recording of our event "Immigrant Detention Issues in the U.S. - Conversation with Eunice Cho, Civil Rights Attorney"



  1. Fact Sheet: Immigration Detention in the United States

  2. United States Overview

  3. Fact Sheet: Immigration Detention in the United States
  4. "Virus cases are surging at crowded immigration detention centers in the U.S."

  5. "ICE guards “systematically” sexually assault detainees in an El Paso detention center, lawyers say", "Why abuse and neglect of immigrants proliferate in ICE detention"

  6. "The hunger-striking Indians demanding US asylum"

  7. "The Cost of Detention Centers Is the Dignity and Rights of Thousands of South Asian Immigrants"

  8. Asian Americans Advancing Justice Testimony U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Public Briefing “Immigration Detention Centers and Treatment of Immigrants” held on April 12, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
  9. "The Cost of Detention Centers Is the Dignity and Rights of Thousands of South Asian Immigrants"
  10. "A Hunger Strike in ICE Detention"