The Real Costs of Immigration Detention

Ana Maria’s (name changed) lips tremble as she tells me about her seven-year old daughter who asks where her mother is every night. A couple of years ago, Ana Maria’s husband was deported and now, her daughter’s worst fear has come true: her mother is in detention and will probably be deported as well. Ana Maria has been living in Arizona for over ten years and her only criminal charges are two DUI’s. If she were an American citizen, these DUI’s may have meant that she would have gone to jail for a few months and then returned to her life. However, as an undocumented person, these charges make her a priority for deportation and separation from her daughter. As Ana Maria has been here for over ten years, she can apply for cancellation of removal, but in order to qualify for this legal remedy, she must prove that her daughter would suffer “extreme hardship” if separated from her mother. When I explain this, Ana Maria quickly tells me how her daughter was traumatized by her father’s deportation and now cries every day for her mother to come home. While this may seem like “extreme hardship” to any mother or daughter, in the eyes of the law, it does not count. Only a severe medical condition or complete dependency qualifies as an “extreme hardship." Most probably, Ana Maria will be deported, leaving her daughter without parents. 

Instead of being able to care for her daughter, Ana Maria is detained in the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona, along with approximately 1,500 other undocumented people, from presenting asylum seekers to long-time residents of the U.S.. Legally speaking, detention is not incarceration and according to ICE, is simply to insure that detainees will attend their immigration court hearings. One look at the Eloy Detention Center, a private prison run by CoreCivic (formerly CCA), will tell you differently. In terms of legal rights, detainees do not have many of those that defendants in criminal court do. Under immigration law, defendants do not have the right to legal counsel nor the right to be tried by a jury. Defendants, many of whom do not speak English, are expected not only to represent themselves but also to submit all documents in English and receive all paper rulings in English. There is no internet access in the detention center and phone calls are costly. For indigenous language speakers, court hearings often get pushed back many times due to the court’s inability to find an interpreter. It is not uncommon for people to be detained for multiple years. In order to get out on bond, defendants must provide extensive proof of their good moral conduct and prove that they are not a flight risk, then pay a bond that can range from the minimum of $1,500 to as much as $40,000 or more.

Meanwhile, the conditions of detention are far from humane. A 2015 report by The Republic, showed that the Eloy Detention Center has had more deaths than any other detention center in the country: fifteen since 2003. Furthermore, people in detention, just like in any other kind of incarceration, can suffer severe mental trauma, what Eloy’s medical staff call “adjustment disorder.” Detention severely affects the families of those detained as well. Tomás (name changed), a young man from Guatemala, presented himself at the border with his pregnant wife in order to ask for asylum from persecution in his home country. His wife is on parole in Washington, but he will remain in Eloy for at least six months awaiting a bond hearing and more if he is denied bond. His first child will be born thousands of miles away from the prison that he sits in.

The United States detains 380,000 to 442,000 persons per year in immigration detention. Over 60% of these people are detained in privately-run immigration detention centers like the Eloy Detention Center. Detention is costly: detaining and deporting 1 person costs $23,000. In 2015, taxpayers paid about $2 billion dollars to fund immigration detention.

Detention is not only expensive but unnecessary and inhumane. Those detained are not criminals, and if they have committed crimes, they have already served their sentences in criminal detention. Undocumented people are not a risk to American society. According to a report by the CATO institute, “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.” Every single person detained could just as easily go through immigration proceedings outside of detention and in that way continue to contribute to our economy and communities.

One might ask, why not immigrate “the right way?" Contrary to popular opinion, immigrating “legally” to the United States is impossible for many people. Millions of people fleeing violence and persecution from Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala , and Mexico (all of which are among the top 13 most dangerous countries in the world according to the major risk consultant Verisk Maplecroft) cannot apply for refugee status in their home countries and must present themselves at the U.S. border in order to ask for asylum. After presenting at the border, they are most often detained in immigration detention centers just like any person who crosses through the desert. There is even an incentive to enter without inspection as you can more easily bond out of detention than if you present at the border. For immigration proceedings that can occur outside of the U.S., such as adjustment of status through a U.S. citizen child, parent, or sibling, the waiting list is extremely long, taking more than 20 years in many cases.

Why is such a cruel and ineffective system being utilized? This question points back to the origins of U.S. citizenship and the ways in which it has been used to include and exclude. Citizenship is a social construct that has been used since the creation of the United States to delineate between the white citizen and the non-white anti-citizen. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to any “free white person,” leaving out enslaved and free people of color. Black Americans were denied citizenship for over a century in order to justify their enslavement and oppression. Native Americans were similarly denied citizenship until 1924. Today, citizenship is used to draw the line between rightful members of United States society and the “illegal aliens,” criminalizing and incarcerating those who are not protected by citizenship. Furthermore, these “illegal aliens” are by far people of color. Fleeing persecution, domestic violence, extortion, gang violence, and economic instability (often caused by U.S. military and economic intervention in foreign countries) should not be a crime. Today, however, it is, and thousands of people sit in jail because of it.

Practical steps to protecting victims of the immigration system include raising awareness about the injustice of immigration detention, putting oneself in contact with local non-profits that advocate for immigrant rights, writing letters of support to people in detention through legal aid organizations, and asking local and state officials to support legislation in favor of undocumented rights.


The following organizations are just a few of those leading the resistance to immigration detention.

American Civil Liberties Union (Nationwide)
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (Pacific Northwest)
NWDC Resistance (Pacific Northwest)
CIVIC (Nationwide)