Detention Centers: Now and Then

With America officially leading the world in incarcerated populations, examining the history of immigration detention centers seems necessary to provide historical context for this overwhelming statistic.


According to the Global Detention Project, the United States leads the world in having the largest system of detention centers. The Detention Watch Network defines detention as “the practice of incarcerating immigrants while they await a determination of their immigration status or potential deportation”(1). Detention centers for undocumented immigrants have been widely reported in the news recently as the horrific conditions in these inhumane camps have been exposed and cases of coronavirus have increased. Although detention is not a new concept, the way the system has expanded and developed is rather alarming. 

The Beginnings--1940

The first, now infamous, immigration detention center to open and operate in the United States was Ellis Island in New Jersey, established in 1892. Thousands passed through Ellis Island and were detained there, especially during the height of World War I, when “enemy soldiers” were being temporarily detained. The detention center was closed in 1954 (2).

Skipping forward to 1896, the Supreme Court case Wong Wing v United States essentially created the civil immigration detention system (3). In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that detention of “aliens” was not legal “imprisonment” or “criminal punishment”. This decision contributed to the creation of a separate bureaucratic arm of government monitoring immigration. 

The period between 1929 and 1936 saw mass deportation of Hispanic people out of the U.S. in what is now known as “Mexican Repatriation”. During this time, 1.8 million men, women, and children were forced out of America and sent to Mexico. With the economy’s collapse in 1929, President Hoover was faced with a financial crisis that, inspired by the rise of xenophobia, he decided to “fix” through mass deportations of “illegals” (4). The idea that “foreigners” took up jobs meant for Americans, prospering during the Great Depression, was combated by deporting anyone with a “Mexican-sounding” name. Many of those deported were American citizens who had never been south of the border before. Some made it back as part of the Bracero program in the 1940s. 

Immigration detention did not see a resurgence until the 1980s. From the 1950s to the 1980s, immigration detention was handled on a “parole” system for those deemed to be a danger to public safety (5).


The 1980s marked a distinct shift in immigration detention in America. With an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers from Haiti and Cuba, as well as an increase in xenophobic sentiments in America, the Reagan administration cracked down on immigration into America and seriously expanded immigration detention. In 1981, the Reagan administration opened the first detention center in Puerto Rico to deal with the 100,000 Cubans and 15,000 Haitians attempting to seek refuge in America(6). Though many Cubans were released rather quickly, undocumented Haitiain migrants were detained without the possibility of bond. When faced with a legal challenge to the discriminatory practices of detaining solely Haitian immigrants, the Reagan administration expanded detention to include Salvadorans and other asylum seekers from around the world, greatly increasing  the detention center populations. 1985 marked the year the first immigration detention center was opened for children and infants and in 1991, Guantanamo Bay was opened as an immigration detention facility for asylum seekers and refugees. 

1996 Laws

Though immigration detention was always considered to fall under  civil law categories, this classification changed with two major 1996 laws that reclassified detention as a criminal issue. The two laws that were passed to great effect were the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Ilegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Both of these acts, passed under the Clinton administration, expanded mandatory detention and made non-US citizens and even permanent residents vulnerable to deportation. The IIRIRA expanded the definition of “criminal convictions” that warranted detention to minor, nonviolent offenses, contributing to a surge in detained populations (7).

Mandatory Detention 

Mandatory detention laws account for the overwhelming increase in the detention system population. It is estimated that roughly 70% of immigrants in detention are there because of mandatory detention laws. There are two types of mandatory detention. The first occurs as part of expedited removal. As asylum seekers and other immigrants arrive in the United States without proper documentation, most are detained while their cases are reviewed. The second deals with undocumented immigrants convicted of a crime. This sort of mandatory detention has been widely criticized by legislative officials and human rights organizations because the detention occurs regardless of the seriousness of the offense (8).


Immigration detention was labeled as part of the national security issue after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. After this tragedy, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was divided into three departments: US Citizenship and Immigrations Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Post-9/11, more and more immigrants were detained as the United States attempted to screen potential threats to national security (1).

Additionally, under the Obama administration, detention center populations exploded with the implementation of the detention bed quota and the expansion of deportation programs such as Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program. From 2009 until 2017, under Public Law 114-4, immigration detention centers were required to keep 34,000 immigrants incarcerated at any given time. Though this law was removed in 2017, the number of immigrants in detention now enormously exceeds 34,000 people, especially with the reintroduction of family detention in 2014 (9).

Under the Trump administration, with increased entanglement between the local law enforcement system and the immigration system, community raids and policies prioritizing detention have ramped up immigration detention (9). Although sanctuary cities and protests against ICE have shown the public’s disapproval of the immigration detention system along with criticisms of human rights violations, it is impossible to tell if or how soon this system will undergo any meaningful change. 


  1.  “Preserving Human Rights & Restoring Justice.” Detention Watch Network. International Detention Coalition.
  2.  “Detention Statistics.” Freedom for Immigrants. 2018
  3. “Wong Wing v. United States (1896).” Immigration History, August 4, 2019.
  4.  Wagner, Alex. “America's Forgotten History of Illegal Deportations.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 6, 2017.
  5. “Countries - Global Detention Project: Mapping Immigration Detention around the World.” Global Detention Project | Mapping immigration detention around the world.
  6.  Ghosh, Smita. “Perspective | How Migrant Detention Became American Policy.” The Washington Post. WP Company, July 19, 2019.
  7. Lindskoog, Carl. “Perspective | How the Haitian Refugee Crisis Led to the Indefinite Detention of Immigrants.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 9, 2018.
  8. Parker, Alison. “US: 20 Years of Immigrant Abuses.” Human Rights Watch, July 31, 2020.
  9. “Analysis of Immigration Detention Policies.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2020.

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