The Invisible Problem of Immigration Detention
The Invisible Problem of Immigration Detention

JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Fialho of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement speaks out against the isolation of immigrants in confinement across the US…

Immigration detention is one of the least visible societal problems in the US. Few Americans see the slightest hint of it, although close to half a million immigrants are forced into immigration detention annually. The vast majority of Americans are unaware of immigration detention because the system thrives on secrecy. The widespread lack of public awareness of immigration detention has contributed to its expansion. On any given day in 1995, fewer than 7,500 [PDF] immigrants were detained. In contrast, over 32,000 [PDF] men and women are in custody on a daily basis today.

This reality is changing. Communities throughout the US participated in the National Visitation Month of Action in December organized by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). December 2012 marks the three-year anniversary of the US immigration detention visitation movement’s struggle to end the isolation and abuse of detained immigrants. Over the past few weeks, CIVIC’s grassroots, volunteer-based network has led coordinated visits to immigration detention facilities in over 20 cities in 15 states.

For the past three years, I have been visiting US immigration detention facilities. The hardships and inconveniences suffered by men and women in immigration detention are unbelievable. Josiah, a father of five US citizen children, lost the use of his leg due to an indescribably grotesque infection during his nine months in a New Jersey detention facility. Lara, a victim of sex trafficking, was detained overnight at an all-male detention facility. Daniel has been in immigration detention for seven years, and no lawyer is available to take his case in Alabama. However, the most intolerable aspect of immigration detention is the denial of basic necessities. Sofia, who was detained for over a year, was denied a mattress to sleep on while in solitary confinement. At a California facility, Anselmo must sleep every night without pillows, which exacerbates his chronic migraines and scoliosis.

Furthermore, the most basic necessity — fresh air — is nonexistent at some detention facilities. For instance, the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey does not provide outdoor recreation space. Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit business, runs the center out of a converted warehouse; the few, small windows throughout the warehouse are near the ceiling, preventing the men detained there from even catching a glimpse of the outside world. Other facilities, such as Delaney Hall, also in New Jersey, are within a few dozen feet of toxic waste sites. The summer heat combined with the foul stench can cause detained immigrants, and visitors alike, to become ill. Of course, not all immigration detention facilities are the same. Many allow for outdoor recreation, provide English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and are run by compassionate men and women.

Nevertheless, I cannot begin to imagine what goes through the minds of men and women in detention when they are first stripped of their clothes and given prison jumpsuits, even though they are being held in non-criminal, administrative confinement. I have been told countless times the worst horror of the immigration detention experience is the sheer fear of the unknown. A few months ago, I met an elderly woman who had been detained the previous night. She did not know where she was or why she was in a jail.

No human being deserves to be cut off from the outside world. This is why citizens across the US are volunteering their time each week to visit and support men and women in US immigration detention. From New York to California, Minnesota to Georgia and Washington to Texas, Americans are standing up and starting visitation programs with CIVIC’s support. Visitors offer immigrants in detention an initial point of contact to the outside world. As over 80 percent of immigrants in detention do not have legal counsel, volunteer visitors are often their only connection to the outside world. CIVIC visitors offer sustained one-to-one relationships on a weekly basis, placing CIVIC visitors in a unique position to protect the human rights of individuals in detention, advocate for improvements in detention and ensure that facility staff treat each person with dignity.

Visitation programs also provide the government with a cost-effective solution to expanding services to persons held in immigration detention. Dr. Dora Schriro — a former appointed Special Adviser to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — recommended ICE expand access to visitation in detention. CIVIC can help fulfill this recommendation. As volunteers run visitation programs, ICE and local detention facilities have relatively no overhead cost for providing such a service to persons in immigration detention.

Moreover, visitation programs transform communities. Immigration detention is no longer an invisible practice in communities with active visitation programs. Visitors share first-hand accounts of the immigration detention system with their family, friends, churches and schools. In fact, in the last three years, the visitation movement has grown from four visitation programs to over 20.

However, we must do more. There are 250 detention facilities across the nation. As many of them are in remote places or in unmarked buildings in metropolitan areas, it is possible that one of them is in your backyard.

Christina Fialho is a California attorney and the Co-Founder/Executive Director of CIVIC. She is a recipient of the 2012 Echoing Green Fellowship and a Steering Committee Member of Detention Watch Network.

Suggested citation: Christina Fialho, The Invisible Problem of Immigration Detention, JURIST – Hotline, Jan. 4, 2013,

This article was prepared for publication by John Paul Regan, an assistant editor with JURIST’s professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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