Skip to content Skip to navigation

Locked up but not forgotten

Locked up but not forgotten

Photo: AFSC

The Obama administration has committed itself to reforming the nation’s expansive and controversial immigration detention system. In August of 2009, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Secretary John Morton announced that the agency would be taking steps towards the creation of a civil detention system tailored to the agency’s asserted needs and purposes, a plan that will likely take years to come into fruition. Details about what the system might look like have emerged in recent news stories, with the agency signaling that it is looking into converting hotels and nursing homes into immigration detention centers. As it works toward implementing its long-term plan, the administration must not lose sight of what it can do immediately for the people currently trapped in a system that is a complete failure and that does not consider the individual in each case and ask whether detention is necessary at all.

This report examines access to family and community, a part of the day-to-day immigration detention experience that is severely restricted in the current system yet can be improved immediately. For the thousands of people that ICE holds in jails and detention centers across the country—many of whom pose no flight risk or danger to the community—detention amounts to near total isolation from the outside world, often for prolonged periods of time. In a system where fighting against wrongful detention and deportation can take months and sometimes years, severing people from their homes and restricting access to family and community through unreasonable and inhumane rules contradicts the notion that the immigration detention system is civil or administrative in nature. In effect, immigration detention is punishment—not just for the immigrants in detention, but for their families and communities as well.

Key Findings

  • Immigration detainees in state and local jails are given minimal access to family and community, and the degree of access is dependent upon the rules of the particular facility. Frequent and arbitrary transfers across facilities and exorbitant telephone rates further impair detainees’ ability to maintain communication with family and community members.
  • Visitation from family and community members boosts morale among detainees and provides them with the hope needed to pursue legitimate claims for relief. Visitation also promotes detainees’ transition either back into their community in the U.S. or their country of origin.
  • In cases where family members are too afraid to visit a loved one in detention for fear that they too may be detained, visitation by community groups provide detainees with a vital link to family.
  • Restrictions of non-legal visits to brief periods of time (usually 30 minutes) are arbitrary and detrimental in a detention system where 84% of people are unrepresented. Detainees rely on visitors for tasks as diverse as articulating a theory of relief, securing letters of support from the community, and gathering funds for bond and relief applications.
  • The current immigration detention system impairs positive community participation by relying on a detention standard that treats visitation as a security concern meriting substantial restriction.
  • Visitors help detainees navigate complex and unclear grievance procedures. In a system that lacks accountability, visitors are an important source of information about day-to-day conditions at detention facilities.
  • Family and community visitors help mitigate deficits in the level of care that detainees receive in facilities. Visitors help ensure that detainees are receiving appropriate medical care and pressure facilities to improve detention conditions.