Immigration Policy Center: Recommendations for Addressing Mental Illness and Disability Among Detained Immigrants

In light of May 2nd, the National Day of Action to End Family Detention, we will be discussing the detention of non-citizens, the policies governing it and how it can negatively impact the mental health of detained adults, children and families.

Close Dilley

The History of Immigrant Detention

The United States government, through the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has increased its use of civil detention for non-citizens at an alarming rate since 1996  (American Civil Liberties Union, 2006).

Detention Watch Network, 2012
Detention Watch Network, 2012

The size of the immigrant detention system has increased 500% over the past 2 decades, from 6,280 beds in 1996 to 33,4000 beds in 2011 (Tan, 2011). In fact, , there was a 52.8% increase between 2005 and 2010 (Office of Immigration Statistics, 2011). Moreover, illegal immigration (46%) was the most common arrest offense across the nation in 2010 (Motivans, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013).

Immigration reform measures passed in the 1980s and 90s have resulted in drastic changes to the detention laws (Tan, 2011). In 1988, Congress passed the first mandatory detention statute, requiring the detention without bond of non-citizens convicted of an aggravated felony (Tan, 2011). In 1994, this statute was amended to widen the definition of aggravated felony and increase the number of non-citizens who could not be released on bond (Tan, 2011). Then, in 1996 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was passed, which required the detention without bond of almost all non-citizens with criminal convictions including non-violent, misdemeanor charges (Tan, 2011). Finally, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made these changes to an aggravated felony retroactive; in other words, non-citizens who had already served time in jail or settled their court case could be detained after the fact (Tan, 2011).

ICE’s primary mission is to promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration.

According to ICE (2015), non-U.S. citizens who are apprehended and determined to need custodial supervision are placed in detention facilities. By law, immigration detention is different from criminal incarceration (Schriro, 2009). In fact, ICE does not classify detention as punitive, but instead categorizes it as a short-term administrative measure to ensure that non-citizens appear at their immigration hearing. Interestingly, an annual report published by the Office of Immigration Statistics (2010) defines detention as “the seizure and incarceration of an alien in order to hold him her while awaiting judicial or legal proceedings or return transportation to his/her country of citizenship.” Therefore, there are conflicting definitions of detention within the United States government and a clear contradiction between policy and practice.

While convicted prisoners are protected by the US Constitution and the 8th Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” detained immigrants are by definition non-citizens, and therefore are protected under the Constitution’s 5th Amendment, which affords everyone the right to “due process” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2006). However, up to 84% of detainees do not have lawyers, and due to policies like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, non-citizens are not guaranteed a basic form of due process, which is a prompt bond hearing before an independent judge to determine whether the detention is justified (Tan, 2011). Finally, under the Bush Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service department was abolished, and the Department of Homeland Security took over the process of monitoring immigration, whose sole mission is to protect American citizens from terrorism (Mukopadhayay, 2008). This shift in departmental control, as well as the above policies, have all contributed to the further criminalization of immigration.

Further, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that conditions of confinement for civil detainees must be superior not only to convicted prisoners, but also to pre-trial criminal detainees (American Civil Liberties Union, 2006). Therefore, if civil detainees are confined to conditions identical, or similar, to those of convicted prisoners, then those conditions could be considered unconstitutional (American Civil Liberties Union, 2006). However, the majority of facilities used to detain non-citizens were originally built, and currently operate, as jails and prisons to confine pre-trial and sentenced felons (Schriro, 2009).

There are two types of detention facilities, one for detaining non-citizens for 72 hours or less and those for detaining non-citizens for 72 hours or more (Schriro, 2009). While 93% of facilities are for detaining immigrants for 72 hours or more, 66% of detained non-citizens were apprehended for non-criminal charges and 88% of immigration defendants were detained in 2010 (Motivans, 2013; Schriro, 2009). Further, 39% of cases terminated in the United States were immigration defendants (Motivans, 2013). In other words, two-fifths of immigrants detained were released with their cases dropped and no charges. This supports the argument that it would be more humane and cost-effective to allow immigrant defendants to stay within the community while awaiting legal or judicial proceedings.

Immigration Forum, 2013
Immigration Forum, 2013

The cost of detaining non-citizens is exorbitantly higher than alternatives to detention (ATD), such as monitoring immigrants within the community (Human Rights First, 2012; Tan, 2011). While ATDs cost approximately 40 cents to $14 a day per individual, detention centers cost between $266 and $300 a day per individual (Planas, 2014). The ICE spends approximately $2 billion per year on detention, which is 28x the budget for alternatives (Human Rights First, 2012). Moreover, more than 90% of immigrants in Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs have participated successfully.

Immigrant Detention in Texas

This is not just an issue for the United States on a whole, but it is also incredibly pertinent to Texas. 24% of the total population detained by ICE are in Texas facilities (Human Rights First, 2012). In fact, Texas leads in the number of beds offered to ICE through private contractors (Detention Watch Network, 2012).

Detention Watch Network, 2012
Detention Watch Network, 2012

The video below discusses the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas, which was originally a medium-security state prison, and was the largest family detention center in the country (Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission, 2014). In 2009, the Obama administration ordered the T. Don Hutto detention center to close due to substantiated claims of substandard care.

In December 2014 a new family detention center was opened in Dilley, Texas. Immigrant advocacy groups are vehemently opposed to the Obama administration’s return to family detention practices since 98% of families are seeking protection within the United States, and are eligible for asylum (Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission, 2014). In addition to allegations of substandard child care, medical care and legal assistance, there have also been allegations of sexual abuse between detention guards and detained women (Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission, 2014). In light of these issues, a local community organization, Texans United for Families, has scheduled a protest at the Dilley Family Detention Center on May 2nd.

Mental Health Concerns within Detention Centers

As previously mentioned, the majority of non-citizens that are arriving in the United States are fleeing unsafe living conditions within their home countries, and are eligible for asylum (Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission, 2014). Accordingly, it has been well-documented that non-citizens requesting asylum have been subjected to physical abuse, sexual violence and trauma prior to immigration, which all require appropriate mental health services (Sinnerbrick, Silove, Field, Steel & Manicavasagar, 1997). However, there have been numerous reports and publications documenting the severe lack of medical and mental health services for detained non-citizens (Mukopadhayay, 2008; Parker, 2010; Schriro, 2009; Tan, 2011). Reported problems include lack of a timely, or accurate, assessment, limited to no translation services, changes in mental health care, including changes to psychotropic medications due to lack of funds or accessibility, lack of appropriate treatment for serious mental illness and the segregation or isolation of those with mental illness or disability.

Research suggests that the longer a non-citizen is detained, the more significantly distressed they became, including symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts (Robjant, Hassan & Katona, 2009). According to Keller et al. (2003) 86% of asylum seekers showed clinical levels of depression, 77% had clinical anxiety and 50% had clinical post-traumatic stress disorder. At follow-up, the mental health of those who were still detained had continued to deteriorate, while their were significant improvements in mental health among those who had been released.

Recently, the United States, along with other industrialized countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, have returned to the detention of children, through the advent of family detention centers, which directly opposes the UNCRC‘s policy that children should only be detained as a “last resort” and for the “shortest time possible.” Further, family detention centers are solely meant for mothers and children, and leads to the removal of fathers, even if they are apprehended together (Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission, 2014). Therefore, these policies do not take into consideration the trauma imposed on children due to the separation of families and disruption of attachments (Newman, 2008).

Additionally, there has been a drastic increase in the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the United States; in 2011, over 21,000 unaccompanied children from Latin countries like El Salvador and Guatamala entered the United States (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2013). According to this report, over half (58%) of unaccompanied children were eligible for international protection due to exposure to violence and 22% had experienced abuse in the home. Therefore, there are significant needs among detained, non-citizens to receive appropriate, and time sensitive, mental health care and serious concerns regarding the detention of families, and more specifically, children.

The Immigration Policy Center

The Immigration Policy Center (IPC) is a think-tank associated with the American Immigration Council. IPC’s mission is to “shape a rational conversation on immigration and immigrant integration.” The IPC researches a plethora of issues related to immigration including deportation, health care, employment and citizenship. Therefore, the IPC is an expert in the field of immigration, and has published multiple reports regarding deportation and detention.

Immigrant Detention Reform & Recommendations

According to a Special Report published by the Immigration Policy Center in 2010, detention centers are not meeting the current needs of non citizens with mental illness or disability. Therefore, the IPC recommends the following changes in order to improve the current mental health services:

1. Require that non-citizens are immediately screened on admission for mental disabilities by a healthcare professional.

2. Provide professional translation services to all non-English speaking

3. Improve the overall quality of mental health services within detention centers, including appropriate levels of staffing.

4. Develop and maintain electronic medical records in order to improve the identification and documentation of non-citizens with mental disability or mental illness.

5. When feasible, release non-citizens with mental illness or mental disability into the community under the care of a guardian or family member. If not feasible, provide access to appropriate mental health services such as the accurate dispensation of medications, and avoid the current practices of prolonged isolation or segregation.

6. Ensure that non-citizens with mental disabilities are providing appropriate legal representations or counsel, as well as an appointed guardian or family member for legal proceedings.

In conclusion, the United States is currently detaining almost half a million non-citizens per year, and spending approximately $2 billion on the venture. The current system raises serious concerns in terms of providing humane care for those who are awaiting legal proceedings regarding immigration, and many non-citizens are not afforded the constitutional rights that they are guaranteed. Alternatives to detention could significantly decrease the current budget, as well as improve the overall quality of life and mental health for detained adults, families and children.


American Civil Liberties Union. (2006). Conditions of Confinement in Immigrant Detention Facilities. Retrieved from

Detention Watch Network. (2012). Detention Centers. Retrieved from

Keller, A. S., Rosenfeld, B., Trinh-Shevrin, C., Meserve, C., Sachs, E., Leviss, J. A., Singer, E., Smith, H., Wilkinson, J., Kim, G., Alden, K. & Ford, D. (2003). Mental health of detained asylum seekers. The Lancet, 362(9397), 1721-1723.

Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service & the Women’s Refugee Commission. (2014). Locking Up Family Values, Again. Retrieved from

Motivans, M. (2013). Federal Justice Statistics, 2010. US Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Mukhopadhyay, R. (2008). Death in detention: Medical and mental health consequences of indefinite detention of immigrants in the united states. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 7(2), 693.

Newman, L. K., & Steel, Z. (2008). The child asylum seeker: psychological and developmental impact of immigration detention. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 17(3), 665-683.

Office of Immigration Statistics. (2011). Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2010. US Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from

Packer, T. (2010). Non-citizens with mental disabilities: the need for better care in detention and in court. Immigration Policy Center. Retrieved from

Planas, R. (2014). Family Detention Center In Texas Is ‘Utterly Unnecessary,’ Says Immigration Attorney. Huffington Post Latino Voices. Retrieved from

Robjant, K., Hassan, R., & Katona, C. (2009). Mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers: systematic review. The British Journal of Psychiatry,194(4), 306-312.

Schriro, D. B. (2009). Immigration detention overview and recommendations. US Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sinnerbrink, I., Silove, D., Field, A., Steel, Z., & Manicavasagar, V. (1997). Compounding of premigration trauma and postmigration stress in asylum seekers. The Journal of psychology, 131(5), 463-470.

Tan, M. (2011). Locked Up Without End: The Indefinite Detention of Immigrants Will Not Make American Safer. Immigration Policy Center. Retrieved from

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2013). Children on the Run. Retrieved from


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