Polls: United States

Gallup Poll (June - July) 2008): "Which comes closer to your view? Illegal immigrants mostly take jobs that American workers want. OR, Illegal immigrants mostly take low-paying jobs Americans don't want."

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CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll (Jan 2008): "Would you like to see the number of illegal immigrants currently in this country increased, decreased, or remain the same?"

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Quick Facts

Number of Immigration Detention Sites: 961 (2007)

Detention Capacity: 33,400 (2009)

Annual Number of Deportations:

Undocumented Population:
11.6 million (2006)

Number of asylum seekers:
83,884 (end of 2007)


Last updated: March 2009

United States Detention Profile


The United States maintains the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world, which by the end of fiscal year 2007 included 961 sites either directly owned by or under contract with the federal government, according to the Freedom of Information Act Office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (Pavlik-Kenan 2007). Data collected by the Global Detention Project show that no less than 363 detention sites were used during the period 2007-2009 (see Map of Detention Sites).


By 2009, the country’s total immigration-related detention capacity was 33,400, up from 27,500 in 2006 and 6,785 in 1994 (Roberts 2009; ICE 2007). The rapid growth of the U.S. detention infrastructure has been driven in large measure by policies aimed at deporting so-called criminal aliens, non-citizens convicted of certain crimes. But according to a March 2009 Associated Press investigative report, “An official Immigration and Customs Enforcement database, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed a U.S. detainee population of exactly 32,000 on the evening of [January 25, 2009]. The data show that 18,690 immigrants had no criminal conviction, not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like trespassing. More than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more; one man from China had been locked up for more than five years. Nearly 10,000 had been in custody longer than 31 days—the average detention stay that ICE cites as evidence of its effective detention management” (Roberts 2009).


Aside from “criminal aliens,” those confined in U.S. immigration detention centres include undocumented immigrants, unaccompanied minors, and asylum seekers. These detainees are held in a panoply of types of detention sites, including dedicated immigrant detention centres, privately run prisons, federal penitentiaries, state and county jails, juvenile detention centres, and semi-secure shelters run by private charities to house unaccompanied minors (for more on "security" levels, see the "Categories" menu on the List of Detention Sites).


The vast majority of immigration detainees--some two-thirds--are held in local jails, which have specific contracts with the federal government called Intergovernmental Service Agreements (Gorman 2009; Pavlik-Kenan 2007). According to an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times, by 2009 payments made by the federal government to cities and counties for confining immigrants had become a principal source of revenue for many local law enforcement agencies (Gorman 2009). In the state of California alone, reports the Times, the federal government "paid nearly $55.2 million to house detainees at 13 local jails ... in fiscal year 2008" (Gorman 2009).


Although most facilities operate either directly under the authority of ICE (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) or have contracts with that agency, facilities that hold unaccompanied minors have contracts with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services. Many of the ORR facilities are church-run shelters and halfway homes that the Global Detention Project codes as “semi-secure” sites because they are not in any way similar to prisons or dedicated immigration detention centres (see List of Detention Sites).


U.S. immigration detention practices have not been confined to its territory. According to media and advocacy reports, in recent years U.S. immigration authorities have funded the detention and deportation activities of other countries in the Americas, including Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala (Flynn 2002; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2000). In addition, the private company GEO Group operates a “Migrant Operations Centre” in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GEO Group 2009).


According to ICE, in 2005 it apprehended more than 275,000 “illegal aliens” (Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General 2006) and deported 367,000 in 2008 (Olivo 2009), up from 187,513 in 2006 (U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement 2007). The United States estimates that there were 11.6 million “unauthorized immigrants” living in the country as of January 2006 with an average annual net increase during 2000-2006 of some 500,000 (Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics 2006). In addition, by the end of 2007, the country had 83,884 asylum seekers whose cases were still pending (UNHCR 2008). The vast majority of apprehended migrants come from Mexico but an increasing number of detainees come from across the globe, representing “virtually every country of the world” (U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, “Detention Management Program” 2007). On average, those awaiting deportation spend 31 days in detention (Roberts 2009) while asylum seekers awaiting a “credible fear determination” spent on average 64 days in detention in 2005, with nearly a third of detained asylum seekers remaining in detention for more than 90 days (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2005).


U.S. detention facilities have been plagued with problems, including allegations of physical abuse of detainees, inadequate medical care, lack of access to legal counsel, and inappropriate conditions of detention, such as confining administrative detainees alongside convicted criminals in jails and prisons. These problems have come to light through a series of lawsuits filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in recent years, as well as through a passel of reports and investigations undertaken by national and local media, government oversight agencies, rights organizations, academic institutions, and international organizations.


Among the reports published during 2006-2009: