Immigration enforcement through community raids, detentions, and deportations, increased starting in 2017 (Rein et al., 2017). US immigration policies, enforcement strategies, and detention, often cause physical and psychological harm to immigrants and their families. Immigration detention specifically, has been found to have deleterious health and mental health effects (Saadi et al, 2020; von Werthern et al., 2018). Although there has been a recent decline, immigration detention had tripled from the mid-1990s through 2020 (Migration Policy Institute, 2021). The dramatic increase in the use of detention by the US makes it necessary to assess the impacts of immigration detention. Using a Latina/o Critical Race Theory (LatCrit) theoretical framework, this qualitative study examines oppressive immigration policies and the inherent and institutional racism in immigration detention centers that leads to abuse and mistreatment of immigrants.
Data for this qualitative study were drawn from a focus group of adult Latino immigrants who had been released from immigration detention and were living in Arizona during the spring of 2017. Participants were recruited through immigrant rights organizations, social service agencies, and churches. Eleven participants, (7 women and 4 men) participated in the focus group. The focus group session was conducted in Spanish and a set of guiding questions was used to examine immigrants’ experiences in immigration detention. The focus groups were recorded and transcribed verbatim. A six-step thematic analysis approach was used by bilingual and bicultural research team members to code and analyze the focus group data (Braun & Clark, 2006).
After analyzing the data, four major themes emerged: 1) abuse of power- participants indicated consistent incidents of ICE officials, Border Patrol and detention officers, and medical personnel abusing their power and authority through aggressive physical acts, lies, and intimidation; 2) discrimination and dehumanization- participants described discrimination and dehumanization, as well as verbal mistreatment and humiliation by immigration officials; 3) trauma- participants described numerous instances of traumatic experiences while in detention such as witnessing death, or seeing others contemplate death when the conditions became unbearable; and 4) hope and resilience- despite being held in immigration detention, participants discussed the importance of focusing on family and faith to overcome the experiences of being in immigration detention.
Conclusions & Implications:
Using a LatCrit theoretical framework, this study demonstrates the centrality and intersectionality of race and racist nativism that permeates US immigration policies and immigration detention centers.
Through direct accounts from Latina/o immigrant detainees, findings revealed they experienced abuse of power and mistreatment by immigration and detention officials. In addition, participants had traumatic experiences while in detention which led to ongoing trauma after their release. However, while they experienced these atrocities, their resilience was evident as they held onto hope, faith, and the thought of their families in order to get them through their experiences of being held in immigration detention.
Social work research must continue to examine the immediate and long-term consequences of immigration detention. The social work profession must continue to advocate for the elimination of harsh immigration policies, including immigration detention.