CIANA Explains: Immigration Detention Centers

Detention center in Texas from "Immigrant Detention: The New Internment Camps" by Emerson Collective

The alarming conditions in U.S. immigration detention centers–captured in photos that showcase severe overcrowding and migrants wrapped up in only aluminum blankets to stay warm–have come to dominate national headlines. Nearly 200 immigration detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies are scattered throughout the United States. These detention centers hold over 52,000 people, most of whom are fleeing violence and poverty from Central American countries. Many of these asylum-seeking migrants and refugees end up in detention centers that visitors, politicians, and detainees alike say parallel jails and torture facilities.

What are the conditions like at immigration detention centers?

Detained children and adults are held with meager access to basic necessities including food, water, sanitation, bedding, and medicine. As captured infamously during Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to a Texas detention center when a group of detained men yelled, “No showers!”, detainees are often denied showers for weeks. Even soap is often unavailable.

Doctors describe signs of malnutrition among children with meager rations, under-cooked meals, and food inconsistent with detainees’ religious practices. Detainee Paul Singh–who fled India to seek political asylum–lost 15 pounds in less than two months in his time at the facility. He survived on green beans, rice, and two pieces of bread each day.

Meals aren’t much better for children. Surviving on non-nutritional food–such as instant ramen and other microwavable meals–infants and children on this diet at facilities lose weight at rapid rates.

The harsh treatment of migrants extends to sexual assault allegations. Starting from October 2014, the federal government received over 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse of migrant minors held in detention centers.

Why are migrants facing detention?

The recent “zero tolerance” policy set in May 2019 aims to prosecute all migrants who enter the U.S. undocumented. This leads to children being separated from their guardians, who face criminal prosecution, and being placed in detention facilities.