Immigration Detention, Inc.

Denise Gilman
The University of Texas School of Law

Luis A. Romero
Southwestern University

Credit: josefkubes/Shutterstock

Immigration Detention, Inc.


This article addresses the influence of economic inequality on immigration detention. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detains roughly 350,000 migrants each year and maintains more than 30,000 beds each day. This massive detention system raises issues of economic power and powerlessness. This article connects, for the first time, the influence of economic inequality on system-wide immigration detention policy as well as on individual detention decisions.

The article begins with a description of the systemic impact that for-profit prisons have had on the federal immigration detention system, by promoting wide-scale detention. The resulting expansion of detention has led to ever-increasing profitability for the private for-profit prison sector, which allows the companies to exercise even more influence over policymakers to achieve yet higher levels of detention. The influence of wealthy private prison corporations also affects the very nature of immigration detention, leading to the use of jail-like facilities that are the product offered by the private prison industry.

The article then describes the mechanisms by which economic inequality dictates the likelihood and length of detention in individual cases. The detention or release decisions made by DHS in individual cases must account for the need to keep numerous detention beds full to satisfy the contracts made with powerful private prison companies. DHS regularly sets bond amounts at levels that are not correlated to flight risk or danger, but rather to the length of time that the individual must be held in detention to keep the available space full. The article presents data, obtained from immigration authorities, regarding detention and bond patterns at a specific detention center that demonstrate this point. The research finds an inverse relationship between the number of newly arriving immigrants in the detention center and the bond amounts set by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). During times when new arrivals were few, the amount required to be released from detention on bond was high; during times when there were many new arrivals, bond amounts were reduced or set at zero.

The article also presents another way in which economic inequality affects the likelihood of detention at the individual level. Release and detention are largely controlled through the use of monetary bond requirements, which must be paid in full. The regular use of financial bonds as the exclusive mechanism for release means that those migrants who are most able to pay are most likely to be released, without regard to their likelihood of absconding or endangering the community. Wealth thus determines detention rather than an individualized determination of the necessity of depriving an individual of liberty.

The article urges that the role of economic inequality in immigration detention raises troubling issues of democratic governance and the commodification of traditional governmental functions. The current system also leads to an unjustifiable redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Looking at immigration detention through the lens of economic inequality offers new lines of theoretical inquiry into immigration detention. It connects the discussion of immigration detention to scholarly critiques of for-profit prisons and the privatization of state security functions more generally. It also brings a new perspective to prior work in the immigration and criminal justice contexts, questioning the fairness and utility of requiring payment of monetary bonds to obtain liberty from detention.

The article concludes with recommendations for reform. These reforms would help to sideline the influence of economic inequality in immigration detention decision making.


Author Names

Denise Gilman and Luis A. Romero

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2018
Pages 145-160
DOI 2331502418765414
Volume 6
Issue Number 2