Immigration Detention and Deportation

As researchers we are faced with increasing challenges when it comes to immigration. Today, we are witnessing stricter state policies against undocumented immigration—in states like Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah—while detention and deportation rates increase dramatically and border control efforts are magnified. Those concerned about immigration—or migration—regardless of our political bent on the matter, can recognize this as a historic moment ripe for research.

For starters, immigration detention and deportation have reached levels never before seen in American history. In fiscal year 2010, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) reported deporting nearly 400,000 immigrants. Daily detainment rates of immigrants have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, increasing from a daily average of 54 detainees in 1981 to roughly 32,000 in 2011 (see Frontline Timeline). Some blame Obama for continuing Bush’s policies and not honoring his campaign promise of immigration reform—having deported an estimated one million immigrants since his presidency began. Others applaud improved mobilization of our enforcement efforts for the remarkable deportation level of undocumented immigrants. Still others are not impressed; they want even stricter regulations and swifter enforcement. As social scientists we recognize the urge not only to examine these arguments in relation to lived phenomena, but also to quantitatively and qualitatively unearth and illuminate the not-so-obvious consequences of these positions.

Though it is not recognized as formal incarceration by the government, immigration detention is the fastest growing form of imprisonment in America. A recent Frontline documentary called “Lost In Detention” details the contested and complex problem of immigration detention. It provides an overview of the issue and demonstrates areas of concern that social scientists may be interested in investigating. For instance, sociologists and legal scholars have been interested in the convergence of criminal processing procedures and detainment with immigration detention and deportation, particularly post-911 and with the creation of Secure Communities, an endeavor that links the ICE database with the FBI to track undocumented immigrants during criminal processing. Contrarily, little ethnographic research has been conducted on how detention and deportation disrupt community life, economic stability, and family dynamics.

A question worth examining is the consequences of current policies for the increased number of U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants who get caught in the net of detention and deportation. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants make up 8% of new births and 7% of all children under the age of 18.  Accordingly, how do detention and deportation impact child welfare agencies? What about education attainment and enrollment, particularly where there is a high percentage of students born to undocumented immigrant parents? A case in point is the recent anti-immigration legislation in Alabama that quickly resulted in a 5% reduction in school attendance by Hispanic children (see NY Times).

Other questions come to mind. Given the hot political climate surrounding immigration reform, political scientists may be concerned about how strict anti-immigration policies realign political alliances and affect larger communities connected to the migration experience. A good question would be: Is this a juncture in which Latinos—because of the large percentage of deportees hailing from Latin America—reinterpret their experiences as solidly marginal and exclusionary or do the political discourses and  policy changes create greater cleavages within an Hispanic political identity? How do first and second generation immigrants form their political orientations and sense of belonging in relation to this phenomenon? Is an unchanging, inter-generational American ideal evidenced in communities impacted by immigration detention and deportation? Do their attitudes and feelings toward American institutions—education, government, economy, and criminal justice—darken as detention and deportation rates increase and interrupt their lives? Finally, how do immigration deportation and detention further stratify our society?

Immigration detention and deportation have become significant issues that beg for attention from social scientists, particularly as our racial and ethnic landscape changes and we move from an era of “mass incarceration” to “mass detention” and “mass deportation.” There are arguably some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.(see Pew Hispanic Center reports). Fears and anxieties over detention and deportation may in fact mean the number is higher yet. This massive growth in immigration deportation suggests many potential projects and questions for research that could shed light on the lived experiences and social consequences of this issue.


Author: Julian Thompson

Julian Thompson is a research assistant at the Social Science Research Center at DePaul University. He is completing his MA in Sociology and is expecting to begin doctoral studies in the fall of 2012. Broadly speaking, his interests revolve around issues of identity, culture, power, legal practices and discourses, and inequality. His specific research domains are prisons, punishment, ex-offender reentry, street life, mental illness, and immigration detention and deportation. However, he is particularly interested in studying the racialized experiences of imprisonment and re-entry and the way these impact the racial understandings that offenders of color inculcate and use when making sense of their lives and criminal engagements.

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