How the Immigrant Detention System Arose Before Falling in Trump’s Hands

By Jessica Resendez and Daniel Millán

Today’s anti-immigrant climate is especially volatile with President Donald Trump’s recent pardon of ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio and “Build the Wall” chants intended to send a message. But let’s not forget how immigration policies in the U.S. created a detention and deportation system that Trump inherits. Undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, lawful permanent residents, and virtually any individual with a liminal legal status are all at risk of detention and deportation. An estimated 380,000 to 442,000 immigrants are detained every year. Including the appeals process, immigrants in detention typically wait months—sometimes years—before a ruling decides whether they can stay in the U.S. or not.

Immigration detention facilities first came about as a response to the migrant “crisis” of the 1980’s. As a result, the U.S. government introduced new admission guidelines for refugees and asylum seekers. The idea was to formalize and regulate deportations, but ultimately it grew into a system that criminalizes individuals with parallels to incarceration.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which doubled the number of people placed in detention centers. These laws made it possible to deport lawful permanent residents for certain crime violations, required asylum seekers to immediately be detained upon entering the U.S., and limited the discretion of immigration judges to consider factors like social ties, in making their decisions in cases.

Immigrants fighting their case do so with limited resources. Since detention is considered a civil rather than criminal matter, many represent themselves without the right to a state-appointed attorney. Data collected by Syracuse University’s TRAC project found that almost 91 percent of asylum seekers, without legal representation, are typically denied. According to the New York Immigrant Representation study, immigrants with legal representation typically fare better in court than immigrants without it.

Immigration courts themselves are backlogged and a lack of legal resources stacks the odds against immigrants. During this long wait, immigrants must deal with language barriers, gather substantive evidence without access to free phone calls, and pay bond amounts—if they’re eligible—from $1,500 to $50,000 in order to fight their cases from outside detention.

Conditions inside detention centers compound the struggles immigrants face. Reported incidents in detention include improper medical attention, overextended solitary confinement, and sexual violence. This year alone, there’s eight cases of reported immigrant deaths in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigrant detention is meant to ensure that immigrants attend court. However, its increased use and lack of transparency means that detention facilities aren’t understood well enough. What was meant to be a “solution” to the “crisis” of immigration in the 1980’s only created a new set of problems, with no end in sight.

Daniel Millán is an OCIYU member and Jessica Resendez is a contributing writer for UCI’s New University paper.

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