The Cruel Detention of Immigrants Didn’t Start With Trump — And It Won’t End With Him, Either

Since the 1980s, the US prison system for detaining immigrants has grown exponentially, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The “nation of immigrants” has created a pervasive system of surveillance and control that makes life hell for those yearning to breathe free.

Immigrants stand together along the US/Mexican border wall as they wait to turn themselves over to the US Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

In December 2015, Mayra Machado took her three kids to shop for Christmas decorations in a mall in Springdale, a suburb of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Ever since her miscarriage a few months earlier, her family had been depressed, so she hoped Christmas decorations would bring some cheer to their lives. Dominic (10), Dayanara (8), and Dorian (6) were excited about the upcoming holidays.

On the car ride home, Dominic realized he had left his eyeglasses at the Hobby Lobby they had visited, and so Mayra turned her car around and returned to the store. Raising three kids was difficult after the father of her children had abandoned the family. But she had a good job as an ophthalmologist’s assistant and a new fiancé.

Her hopeful future came crashing down when a police officer pulled Machado over for failing to yield, an offense she claims never happened. He discovered that Machado had an unpaid traffic fine for another failure to yield charge. Although she offered to pay the ticket immediately with a credit card, the officer arrested her and had her car towed away.

On the side of the road, Machado’s three children witnessed their mother being handcuffed and arrested, an image that still haunts them to this day. This was not the first time they had heard of family members being snatched by police. At the station, Machado knew many of the police officers because they had visited the ophthalmologist where she worked. She figured she would pay the fine and be home by evening.

However, an old, bald officer said, “Bring her over here,” and he demanded to know where she was born and her immigration status, flashing a badge that authorized him as an ICE agent. After checking the immigration status of her mother, sister, and grandmother, the officer said he was issuing an immigration hold based on her undocumented status and felony convictions for a writing a hot check a decade earlier.

Machado was born in El Salvador and brought by her mother to this country when she was five years old. Her three children were born in the United States. At that point Machado was told she was being taken to Fort Smith detention center in Arkansas where she would be issued a bond and released. Instead, Machado was shackled and sent to an ICE detention center in rural Louisiana where she was ordered to be deported to a country she left as a child and where she knew nobody.

For the relatively minor crime of writing a bad check when she was a teenager, Machado was punished with banishment and separation from her children. Even for a criminal justice system rife with extreme sentences, this was an absurdly disproportionate outcome. And yet, for immigrants, such extremities are the norm.

Forever Prisoners

Journalists used the term “forever prisoners” to refer to the terrorist suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay. Some of those picked up in 2001 are still being held in Guantanamo, never having been charged with a crime and with no foreseeable end in sight to their incarceration. From the late nineteenth century, many immigrants also found themselves facing indefinite detention, either having never been charged with a crime or having years earlier completed their criminal sentences.

The forever prisoners are a small subset of the millions of all noncitizens locked up domestically or held in US-controlled prisons outside the country, but their stories demonstrate the extent to which foreigners in the United States and in US-controlled territories have found themselves beyond the protection of the Constitution or any semblance of human rights. What makes immigrants forever prisoners is not just the indeterminate time they spend locked up, but the fact that they often remain vulnerable to detention and other restrictions after release; they are never truly free.

Noncitizens live in perpetual fear of incarceration and deportation for minor offenses that may have occurred decades earlier. And even naturalized citizens are under threat of having their citizenship stripped. Like twenty-first-century slave catchers, ICE agents roam highways, fields, and factories, snatching people from their homes and workplaces, and separating parents from their crying children.

Clamping Down

Since the late nineteenth century, the infrastructure to incarcerate immigrants has grown in periodic bouts of prison-building frenzies. From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, however, there was a pause in a longstanding policy of detaining immigrants and refugees while their claims for asylum were being adjudicated.

Immigration was at a historic low in the early 1950s, and the proportion of the foreign-born American population had been in decline from the early twentieth century, so there was little public pressure to keep immigrants locked up. Another reason for the policy of generally paroling refugees and immigrants rather than detaining them was that the United States was projecting itself as a beacon of freedom and hope in the midst of the Cold War. A supposedly “liberal” attitude toward immigrants was part of US foreign policy propaganda.

The policy of limiting detention for asylum seekers, at least in terms of duration if not numbers of people, began to erode with the arrival of Haitians fleeing violence, political instability, and economic crisis in the 1970s. Out of 50,000 Haitian asylum petitions from 1972 to 1980, fewer than 100 were granted. Instead of paroling asylum seekers into the United States while their petitions moved through the hearing process, the INS began to detain all Haitians in hastily erected detention centers.

In April 1980, Fidel Castro’s announcement that he would open up the port of Mariel and allow people to leave Cuba triggered a massive exodus. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) quickly established detention and processing centers in Florida, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Within a few months, almost all of the Cubans were released on parole to US-based family members, but the Haitians and many Black Cubans, most of whom had no family in the country, found themselves in detention for longer periods of time. By May 1981, the INS had a blanket policy of mandatory detention of Haitians with no possibility of release on bond.

The Detention Archipelago

The harsh detention and asylum policies applied to Haitians and Cubans in the early 1980s morphed into a much more expansive criminalization of immigrants by the 1990s. Harsher immigration restrictions expanded the crimes for which immigrants could be deported at the same time that police across the country began to step up their enforcement of low-level offenses.

While increased detentions were already apparent by 2000, the number of detentions continued to grow as local police were more fully integrated with immigration authorities during the Obama administration. Criminal immigration prosecutions remained at less than 20,000 per year from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and then shot up to over 80,000 a year from 2008 through 2014.

The number of immigrant detentions has been dramatically growing as the Trump administration has sought mandatory detention of almost all immigrants, adults, children, and even infants, who come into the country without proper papers. In 2019, a record of more than half a million immigrants were detained. For the first time ever, the US government held more than 50,000 immigrants in their detention centers each day, and Trump’s 2021 budget asked for increased funding to detain 60,000.

To apprehend and hold all of these migrants has required a massive build-up in the prison infrastructure, including the construction of government detention facilities and private prisons, as well as the use of hundreds of local jails and state and federal prisons. In 1980, the INS spent just over $21 million on detention. By 2010, ICE spent almost $1.8 billion annually detaining immigrants, and by 2018, its yearly spending topped $3 billion.

Dubious Distinction

There is no doubt that the United States locks up far more immigrants than any other country. Just as with incarceration of citizens, the nation has the dubious distinction of being a global leader in imprisoning foreigners.

Mexico detains the second-highest number of migrants, reaching close to 100,000 in recent years, but almost all of those detentions are at the behest of the United States. Although accurate data and lack of standardized reporting makes global comparisons difficult, the well over 500,000 annual US immigrant detentions far surpass those of other countries with high detention rates (Malaysia, 87,000; France 46,000; Russia 38,000; and the United Kingdom 33,000).

In early January 2020, Mayra Machado was deported to El Salvador while her appeal was still pending in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Whether she remains in El Salvador hiding from violent gangs or returns clandestinely to the United States, evading ICE and traffic cops, she will live in fear.

There have been peaks and valleys in round-ups of immigrants over the last 140 years, but beginning in the 1980s, we entered a new era in the mass imprisonment of immigrants, coinciding with the mass incarceration of citizens. Today, the same country that declares itself a “nation of immigrants” locks up far more immigrants than any other country on Earth.