The Landscape of Immigration Detention in the United States

By Emily Ryo, J.D., Ph.D. and Ian Peacock, M.A.
December 5, 2018

On any given day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains tens of thousands of individuals who are accused of violating U.S. immigration laws. ICE currently relies on a complex network of jails and jail-like facilities to confine these individuals.

The average daily population of immigrant detainees has increased more than fivefold in the past two decades. At the same time, immigration detention facilities have faced numerous civil and human rights violation complaints, including allegations of substandard medical care, sexual and physical abuse, and exploitative labor practices. Yet, the current administration has sought to further expand immigration detention. To assess the full implications of these expansion efforts, it is critical for policymakers and the public to understand fundamental aspects of the current U.S. detention system.

This report presents findings from an empirical analysis of immigration detention across the United States. We analyze government and other data on all individuals who were detained by ICE during fiscal year 2015, the latest fiscal year for which the federal government has released comprehensive data of this kind on immigration detention. Our analysis offers a detailed look at whom ICE detained, where they were confined, and the outcomes of their detention.

We find that ICE relied on over 630 sites scattered throughout the United States to detain individuals, often moving them from one facility to another. Our analysis reveals that individuals detained by ICE were commonly held in privately operated and remotely located facilities, far away from basic community support structures and legal advocacy networks.

The main findings presented in this report include:

A majority of detainees were men, from Mexico or Central America, and many detainees were juveniles.

About 79 percent of the detainees were men. The population as a whole was relatively young, with the average age of 28 (mean and median). Over 59,000 detainees—about 17 percent—were under the age of 18.

Mexican nationals by themselves made up about 43 percent of the detainee population, and individuals from the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras made up about 46 percent of the detainee population.

ICE used one or more facilities in every state, with Texas and California having the highest number of facilities and detainees.

Every state in the United States had at least one facility that ICE used to detain individuals in fiscal year 2015.

The top five states in terms of the number of facilities used by ICE in fiscal year 2015 were Texas, California, Florida, New York, and Arizona.
The top five states in terms of the detainee population were Texas, California, Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Detention in privately operated facilities and in remotely located facilities was common.

Many detainees were confined in more than one facility during their detention stay. About 67 percent of all detainees were confined at least once in privately operated facilities. About 64 percent of detainees were confined at least once in a facility located outside of a major urban area.

About 48 percent, 26 percent, and 22 percent of detainees were confined at least once in a facility that was located more than 60 miles, 90 miles, and 120 miles away, respectively, from the nearest nonprofit immigration attorney who practiced removal defense.

A majority of adult detainees experienced interfacility transfers involving movements across different cities, states, or federal judicial circuits.

Many adults were transferred between facilities during their detention, leading to confinement in multiple locations. About 60 percent of adults who were detained in fiscal year 2015 experienced at least one interfacility transfer during their detention.

Of those adults who were transferred, about 86 percent experienced at least one intercity transfer, 37 percent experienced at least one interstate transfer, and 29 percent experienced at least one transfer across different federal judicial circuits.

Detention length was significantly longer in privately operated facilities and in remotely located facilities.

Among 261,020 adults who were released from detention during fiscal year 2015, the average detention length (mean) was about 38 days. More than 87,000 of these adults were detained longer than 30 days.

Confinement in privately operated facilities and facilities located outside of major urban areas, respectively, was associated with significantly longer detention.

The number of grievances was significantly higher in privately operated facilities and in remotely located facilities.

In fiscal year 2015, the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) received over 48,800 detention-facility related grievances from detainees and community members. The most common type of grievances involved access to legal counsel and basic immigration case information.

Privately operated facilities and facilities located outside of major urban areas were associated with higher numbers of grievances.

About the Data

We analyze three major datasets in this study. The first dataset—the Detention Data—contains government records pertaining to all individuals who were detained by ICE during fiscal year 2015 (355,729 individuals, including juveniles). To be included in the Detention Data, the individual had to have been detained at some point during fiscal year 2015, but his or her detention need not have begun nor ended in fiscal year 2015. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) obtained the Detention Data from ICE under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The second dataset consists of geocoordinates that we compiled on (1) all of the detention facilities included in the Detention Data, (2) the principal cities of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), and (3) legal service providers. We merged these geocoordinates with the Detention Data to produce the Geocoded Data that allows us to examine distances between detention facilities, MSAs, and legal service providers.

The third dataset contains records on 48,849 facility-related grievances submitted by detainees and community members to the Detention Reporting and Information Line. We merged these records with the Detention Data to produce the Grievance Data, which contains 47,145 grievances pertaining to 304 facilities used by ICE in fiscal year 2015 (including juvenile facilities used by ICE). Human Rights Watch obtained the Grievance Data from ICE through FOIA.

What Do We Know about Immigration Detention?
Who Was Detained and Where Were They Confined?
What Were the Outcomes of Detention?

This report’s findings highlight several key aspects of immigration detention that should be central to any current policy discussions about detention oversight and reform. These key aspects include: (1) the reasons for and the frequency of interfacility transfers, (2) the length of detention, and (3) the nature and volume of grievances filed against detention facilities.

As the federal government expands the use of detention in support of its strict enforcement regime, many of the issues that we have highlighted in this report may become magnified in scope and severity. For example, with the surge in immigration apprehensions under the current administration, there have been numerous reports of sudden, chaotic, and mass transfers of detainees across various facilities. These reports raise renewed concerns about ICE’s use of interfacility transfers and the serious challenges that these transfers raise for detainees in terms of their well-being and ability to pursue legal relief from removal.

Finally, our findings suggest that privately operated facilities and remotely located facilities require special scrutiny, given that placement in these types of facilities is associated with longer detention length and higher volume of grievances. Comprehensive investigations and independent monitoring focused on these types of outcomes and facilities are urgently needed to address the ongoing humanitarian issues and legal concerns raised by immigration detention.

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