US: New Report Shines Spotlight on Abuses and Growth in Immigrant Detention Under Trump


A photo of the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, which opened in December 2019.


© 2019 United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

(Washington, DC) – The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and National Immigrant Justice Center released a first-of-its-kind report today on immigration detention under the Trump administration: “Justice-Free Zones: U.S. Immigration Detention Under the Trump Administration.” The report looks at how the immigrant detention system has grown since 2017, the paltry conditions and medical care – even before the Covid-19 outbreak – and the due process hurdles faced by immigrants held in remote locations. 

The report combines quantitative and qualitative data from visits to five detention centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arizona, interviews with 120 detained people, public government documents, and documents the organization received through Freedom of Information Act requests. Three of these five facilities now have confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The detention machine has exploded, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue for private operators. 
    • Since 2017, 40 new detention facilities have opened. Most are run by private operators. 
    • As of January 2020, 81 percent of detained people are in facilities owned and/or operated by private companies; that number jumps to 91 percent for people who are detained in facilities that opened after 2017.
    • For Fiscal Year 2021, the Trump administration has requested that taxpayers fund ICE at $4.1 billion, with the intent to expand ICE’s daily detention capacity to 60,000 people on any given day. 
  • People are held in conditions that are inhumane, and access to medical care is paltry – even before the pandemic. 
    • Since 2017, 39 adults have died in ICE custody or immediately after being released. Independent medical expert analyses of these deaths have found subpar care contributed to these deaths.
    • Twelve of these deaths were by suicide while in detention. Two of the five detention centers our researchers visited had no mental health professional on staff. 
    • Detained immigrants told researchers about facilities taking a week to set a broken bone and that necessary medication, such as inhalers for asthma, were often not available. 
    • Multiple people interviewed by researchers at one Louisiana facility reported no access to soap for bathing or cleaning supplies for their cells or bathrooms. 
  • Detention is a black box, with no way out for detained people. 
    • Immigrants in detention centers opened under the Trump administration are extremely isolated from access to counsel. Facilities opened before 2017 have four times as many immigration attorneys available within a 100-mile radius as those which have been opened under the Trump administration. 
    • More than 70 percent of people held in detention centers built under the Trump administration are under the purview of the New Orleans field office, which denied 99.1 percent of all applications for release on parole for asylum seekers between March and December 2019
    • Asylum seekers interviewed for this report shared dramatic stories of the lengths immigration officers went to obfuscate the situation, including denying the existence of parole or claiming it’s only for people who are dying.

“We did the research for this report before the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Even before this crisis, detained people were unable to get basic care, they were held in a culture of fear, without any clear way to get out of detention. In a global pandemic, these conditions – overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, staff who don’t speak Spanish, etc. – become even more deadly.  This is not the kind of country we want to be.”

“The Trump administration and its callous indifference to immigrants’ rights and their humanity have allowed already bad conditions in the detention system to deteriorate even further,” said Grace Meng, senior researcher, Human Rights Watch. “But the administration is not the only one responsible for this abusive system – Congress should push back on the administration’s demands and reduce funding for immigration detention and enforcement.”  

“We have experienced unprecedented, unchecked growth in the detention of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers over the last decade,” said Tara Tidwell Cullen, communications director, NIJC. “Since Donald Trump took office, this problem has reached unprecedented levels. We hope this report sends alarm bells.”