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Structure of Federal Immigration Detention
Tuesday, February 22, 2011


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains and seeks to remove immigrants suspected of violating administrative immigration law. Typical immigration violations include crossing the U.S. border without proper travel documents, overstaying a visa, filing a visa application that contains faulty or out-of-date information, or traveling outside the United States without a travel waiver for certain asylum and temporary visa holders. ICE also detains persons seeking asylum who declare their intention to seek asylum at a port of entry and individuals awaiting deportation. Many of the persons currently in detention are awaiting interviews with DHS personnel or hearings before immigrations judges. 

ICE operates or buys space in over 300 detention facilities making it the largest detention system in the United States.  Most detention facilities operate as jails that house pretrial and sentenced felons. This means that their operating standards are meant for dealing with prisoners in criminal incarceration. Legally, immigration detention is supposed to be different from criminal incarceration, but in practice the two are conducted in similar fashions.

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the office within ICE in charge of apprehension, supervision, and deportation of immigrants, operates 24 field offices and 186 subfield offices. Initially after apprehending an immigrant, the detainee remains in a temporary facility (holding area or staging area) usually located in an ERO field office or subfield office. Typically after twelve to sixteen hours in a temporary facility, detainees are transferred to a detention facility.  There are three types of detention facilities: Service Processing Center (SPC) owned by ICE and staffed by private firm, Contract Detention Facility (CDF) owned and operated by a private firm, and county jails that have an intergovernmental agency service agreement (IGSA) with ICE.

The above content in this section was compiled from the Detention Watch Network’s Visiting Immigrants in U.S. Detention Facilities and Dr. Dora Schriro’s Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations

Further Reading

The Global Detention Project has produced a more in-depth profile of the U.S. immigration detention system. The profile details the number of detainees including asylum seekers, the types of detention facilities, facility conditions, and detention facility locations. GDP is a research project at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland that studies the detention policies and infrastructures in different countries.

The Detention Watch Network maintains a detailed description of detention in the United States. Their site includes a history of U.S. immigration detention, the impact of ICE enforcement operations, a description of how ICE uses local prisons and private companies, a summary of efforts to improve detention conditions, an explanation of alternatives to detention, and a map of detention facilities used by ICE.

Finally, the International Detention Coalition has North America Region that posts detention news and developments. IDC’s work focuses on improving detention conditions, ending the detention of children, and promoting alternatives to detention.