What is Immigration Detention?

Daphne Mallory

Immigration detention is the confinement of individuals who are charged with illegal entry into a country or those who obtained legal entry but are charged with committing a crime or who stay after their visa has expired. The detention facilities are often managed by a national law enforcement agency, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is a part of the United States Department of Homeland Security. Detainees remain in mandatory detention until the final outcome of immigration court proceedings. Immigration judges or other immigration authorities make a decision to release detainees back into the country or to deport them back to their country of origin. Some detention facilities include entire families, and some family members may have the proper documentation, while others do not.

Smugglers use a variety of techniques to smuggle immigrants over the border, including hiding them in trucks.
Smugglers use a variety of techniques to smuggle immigrants over the border, including hiding them in trucks.

There are several reasons why immigrants may obtain illegal entry into a country or remain after an authorized visa expires. Some individuals are political asylum seekers, need medical treatment not available in their own country, or are escaping torture and religious prosecution. Whatever the reasons, illegal entry, committing a crime, or staying beyond the period authorized by a visa can result in detention and deportation or detention and release. Violations of a country’s immigration laws are often not governed by criminal law. Whether individuals broke immigration laws and are assigned to immigration detention is often a civil matter, and individuals plead their cases in administrative hearings or in immigration courts.

Many immigration detention facilities are separate from regional and national prisons, but some immigration authorities rent space in those prisons if there’s an overflow problem. The detainees in regular prisons are often not separated from the general prison population. Detainees in some immigration facilities receive health care, living quarters for entire families, and meals. Some facilities adhere to custody management standards created by the law-enforcement agencies that run those facilities, and those standards are sometimes developed in compliance with international law. For example, a detention facility employs specific standards for dealing with detainees who are terminally ill, which may include access to medical providers and the provision of medical treatment. Countries have varying standards for custody management, and they do not all conform to a uniform standard of care.

Some of the problems reported by detainees include the lack of access to attorneys, and various media sources have reported that some detainees die every year in an immigration detention facility. Detainees in some facilities have also accused immigration authorities of discrimination based on race, religion, or other reasons. Each country determines its own policies on discrimination in addition to the standard of care it is willing to provide to detainees.

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