In Your Backyard: 5 Things to Know About ICE’s Immigration Jails


© Eman Mohammed

By Rebecca Ma and Gabriela Viera

Today is the 20th anniversary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — an heirloom of the US’ self-proclaimed “war on terror” that, in turn, has sanctioned over two decades of terror on our communities.

As we look back on ICE’s twenty years, here are 5 things we need to remember and call attention to:

1. Tens of thousands of immigrants are unjustly locked up every day, likely in an ICE detention facility near you.

© Eman Mohammed

With a mission built on the false and racist pretext that immigrants are a national security threat, ICE runs the world’s largest immigration detention system with approximately 200 jails in over half of our fifty states.

Right now, ICE is holding 27,426 immigrants in these facilities (the daily population reached an all-time high of over 55,000 detained immigrants in 2019).

It detains people who are seeking protection from persecution and violence — a human and legal right, or pursuing other forms of immigration relief to stay in the country — often longtime community members with deep roots and family here.

Instead of navigating their immigration proceedings freely, in community and with loved ones, immigrants and people seeking asylum are forced by ICE to languish in detention for months, even years, awaiting an outcome on their case while in dire conditions and with little to no access to counsel.

2. ICE puts immigrants in harm’s way and endangers their lives.

ICE jails are notorious for a host of abusive and sometimes deadly conditions, including:

· negligent medical care;

· inadequate mental healthcare;

· lack of hygiene and sanitation;

· medical misconduct such as gynecological procedures without consent;

· rampant physical and sexual assault allegations;

· use of force;

· verbal abuse; and

· torturous solitary confinement practices.

Over 200 lives have been lost in ICE custody, including deaths by suicide.

ICE also fails to meet the needs of the vulnerable communities they lock up: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and others are denied access to religious services, texts, diets, and places to pray; people with disabilities are not provided necessary accommodations and treatment; and trans folks are blocked from receiving gender affirming care.

Detained immigrants are further exploited for their labor — working to clean, maintain, and operate the jails ICE locks them up in for $1 a day and less.

Those who protest these inhumane conditions, through actions like hunger strikes, are often punished through violent and retaliatory measures.

And don’t be fooled by the agency’s inaptly named “alternatives to detention,” which include e-carceration via ankle monitors and phone apps with geolocation tracking. Falsely advertised as humane solutions, these restrictive and surveillance-based tactics cause widespread physical and psychological harm and have never played a role in reducing the use of detention.

3. Detention is a racial injustice issue that impacts all communities of color.

2017 Value Our Families Rally

People of color, particularly Black immigrants, are targeted most by ICE.

Latine people make up many of the individuals detained. ICE also misclassifies Indigenous migrants as Hispanic or Latine, furthering the already dismal lack of access to interpretation and resources in indigenous languages. Black migrants face a harsher reality with disproportionately higher rates of incarceration, deportation, abuse, solitary confinement, and bond amounts for release.

Sometimes overlooked in the discourse around detention is the Asian community. For instance, Southeast Asians are funneled into the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline at alarming rates and South Asians face systemic patterns of abuse in detention, such as denied religious accommodations.

This country’s racist legacy of targeting and exploiting Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities goes back centuries, and one of the earliest instances of immigration detention traces back to Ellis Island and Angel Island. Portrayed as beacons of hope and welcome, for many, these immigration stations were anything but: aspiring immigrants in the early 1900s, particularly those of color, were detained for long periods of time, separated from family, interrogated, subjected to invasive medical examinations, and faced deportation.

Detention today also results in increased racialized policing in our communities. Research shows the existence of a detention facility in a community correlates with higher levels of ICE and other law enforcement. This brings widespread rights violations, as ICE agents use racist, coercive, and at times unlawful tactics, including racial and class profiling and use of force, to target people in their communities and tear them away from loved ones. The drive for apprehensions also increases activity from other law enforcement like local police, thanks to various programs that facilitate their collaboration with ICE. Because the same racialized enforcement practices plague both the criminal punishment system and immigration enforcement, communities of color are the most affected.

4. ICE detention is also about making the rich richer.

© Defund Hate

Over 80 percent of people in ICE custody are locked up in facilities owned or managed by private prison companies.

More detention beds mean bigger contracts, so these corporations — as well as local and state governments contracting jail and prison space to ICE — are incentivized by profit to support policies that detain more immigrants.

The Geo Group and CoreCivic, the most prolific companies in the business of immigration detention, have made billions of dollars in revenue in recent years. Meanwhile, the corrupt financial incentives for local governments — from population quotas to per diem profits — breed the same results. In fact, after receiving a federal contract, many local governments then subcontract facility operations to a private prison company, perpetuating the same cycles of profit from abuse.

President Biden acknowledged the harms and financial incentives inherent in private incarceration and issued an executive order in 2021 to phase out Department of Justice contracts for privately-operated federal prisons. But he failed to apply this to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its ICE detention contracts. In some cases, his order has prompted companies to simply fill now-empty prison beds and jail cells with immigrants in ICE custody.

The government is using our taxpayer dollars to fuel this system. In recent years, Congress has appropriated approximately $8 billion in annual funding for ICE, approving a bigger budget almost every year instead of using that money to invest in resources like housing and education that actually support our communities.

5. Communities are mobilizing and fighting for liberation, and you can join them in action to stop ICE from reaching another unwelcome anniversary.

© Eman Mohammed

The harm and violence perpetrated against immigrants — to advance white nationalism under the guise of national security and in a racist ploy to profit from incarceration — has gone on for too long. But there is hope.

From national efforts to defund these hate-motivated agencies to local campaigns to shut down immigration cages, a resilient and growing movement of formerly detained immigrants, their family and friends, and advocates and allies are relentlessly organizing to stop these injustices.

Many immigrants and people seeking asylum have family and sponsors in the US, and those who don’t have the support of mutual aid networks and community-based nonprofits primed to help. People can and should be able to meaningfully navigate their immigration cases while simply living their lives — in community and in freedom.

Here’s how you can help build this vision of the future:

· Take action with Defund Hate and sign the Communities Not Cages petition

· Follow @defundhatecampaign on Instagram

· Email to connect with a local Communities Not Cages campaign near you

· Share this blog on social media using #DefundHate #communitiesnotcages #DHS20

Rebecca Ma is the Immigration Advocacy Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Gabriela Viera is the Senior Advocacy Manager at Detention Watch Network.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC has a mission to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Visit our website at

Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visit Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.



Advancing Justice – AAJC
Advancing Justice — AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.