he daily noncitizen inmate population, or individuals held in administrative custody by federal immigration authorities prior to their removal from the US, now stands at a record-high of 32,953 individuals (FY2012 data). This number includes all detainees in all immigration-related detention facilities, i.e. Service Processing Centers operated directly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal prisons, private detention facilities contracted out to DHS, and Intergovernmental Services Agreement locations such as county jails which now increasingly house noncitizen detainees for federal immigration authorities.  These numbers contrast sharply with the average size of the daily noncitizen detention population in 2001—just over 20,000 individuals—meaning that the number of immigrants in detention and awaiting deportation has grown by more than 60% over the past decade.  It costs $113 per person per day to detain these mostly non-criminal offenders, and in 2012 the federal government spent over $2 billion on its noncitizen custody operations.  (See, for example, Alison Siskin’s 2012 Congressional Research Service report, Immigration Related Detention and the National Immigration Forum’s 2013 The Math of Immigration Detention.)

One key reason for the exponential growth of the immigrant detainee population has been the proliferation of federally-managed programs which allow non-federal officers to ask individuals about their immigration status during the course of routine policing, and which in some instances allow police, sheriffs, state troopers, and other corrections officials to hold suspected immigration violators for DHS as part of their booking processes.  The most noteworthy programs here are the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), the 287(g) program, and the Secure Communities program (click here for an overview).  There are some very important differences between these programs, but on the whole they allow non-federal law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of individuals booked into jails and prisons across the country.  Individuals can be interviewed about their suspected immigration status during the booking process, or their biometric and other identifying data can be run through immigration databases managed by the agency within DHS known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  If an individual is flagged through the system as a likely immigration violator, ICE can instruct the arresting agency to hold the person even after the original arresting offense has been dealt with.  At some point these individuals will either be cycled through to official ICE detention facilities, or perhaps released on their own recognizance and with a date to appear before an immigration judge.

The way that programs like Secure Communities work ensures that the numbers we cite above regarding the daily noncitizen inmate population represent a significant undercount. For example, such figures only account for individuals that federal authorities have decided to detain until they are deported and do not represent the broader effects of these newer immigrant policing practices.  Relatedly, it is hard to know how many people have been deported as a result of jail-based programs like Secure Communities and 287(g).  Data on these programs is very hard to come by, and what is published is selective and usually overly broad.  Available data suggest that 1.5 million individuals have been identified as deportable under Secure Communities, and that of this number roughly 280,000 individuals have been physically removed from the country.  Available data on 287(g) suggests that over 300,000 individuals have been found deportable as a result of its delegation of immigration enforcement power to local and state law enforcement.

But our point here goes beyond recognition of the exponential growth of immigrant incarceration and difficulties in accurately representing these increasing rates of detention and deportation.  Rather, what is most troubling about the current constellation of immigrant incarceration is that the system now depends upon the cycling of suspected immigration violators through local lock ups (mostly county facilities) so that local and state law enforcement agencies can ask individuals about their immigration status.  We wish to point out three important features of this local cycling process.

First, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the attention to civil “illegality” via programs like Secure Communities and 287(g) is secondary and follows from an individual’s primary criminal “illegality.”  To the contrary, recent numbers released on Secure Communities show that less than a third of the individuals detained and deported under the program had convictions for serious felony offenses.  This is despite ICE Director John Morton’s instructions to ICE as well as its non-federal partners involved with CAP, 287(g) and Secure Communities to focus only on serious criminal offenders, such as convicted and/or charged felony offenders.  The most generous possible reading of the data shows that less than 50% of the total Secure Communities deportee population had been convicted of a felony offense or multiple misdemeanor offenses (see, for example, this Human Rights Watch letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and this report by the National Immigration Forum.)  But many states have made driving without a license a misdemeanor and/or felony offense, so even these broad-brushed categories should be treated with care.

Second, this cycling oftentimes does not result in immediate deportation.  Deportation, with the key exception of expedited removal cases, is mostly a drawn out process.  Recent nationwide data published on the immigration court backlog and on immigration court processing times shows that, on average, individuals scheduled to appear before an immigration judge wait more than 550 days before having their day in court and, in addition, more than 500 days before their case is decided by a judge.  Given that deportation is a very likely outcome of the immigration court process, the deportation boom that we are currently living through—the Obama administration has overseen approximately 400,000 deportations a year since taking office—will certainly last into the foreseeable future.  But it is also important to consider the possibility that immigration-related detention may not result in deportation.  Although there is little in the way of hard data on this particular problem, anecdotal evidence from our interviews with sheriffs in the US South suggests that ICE may not take custody of individuals identified as deportable through programs like Secure Communities.  This opens up for consideration the possibility that detention can be a temporary, and yet potentially recurring, part of immigrant life in the US.  We do want to be careful on this point, especially given the robust data (as above) on the high percentage of deportations produced by programs like Secure Communities involving both non-criminals as well as minor offenders.  Our point is simply to suggest that we could think more expansively about immigrant detention in the sense that it may, in some localities, take the form of relatively regularized contact with local law enforcement facilities rather than—or in addition to—physical removal from the country.  In this sense, it might be useful to not limit the problem of immigrant detention to the deportation process per se, although certainly it is now harder than ever to avoid deportation as a result of being booked into custody by local and/or state law police.

Third, immigration-related detention by local and state law police leans heavily on policing immigrant automobility.  Accounts from across the country suggest that 287(g) and Secure Communities partners use traffic enforcement as well as traffic checkpoints as opportunities to ask about immigration status—particularly if drivers do not have valid driver’s licenses, which in many states is now grounds for an arrest and an immigration check (see, for example, reports by the Migration Policy Institute and Justice Strategies).  This exposes the larger problem of racial profiling as central to non-federal immigration enforcement, as tellingly addressed in recent overviews of Secure Communities by the DHS and the GAO.

In sum, today’s policies devolving immigration enforcement powers from federal down to state and local levels effectively ensure that the systematized and racialized policing of immigrant bodies and curbing of immigrants’ social reproduction takes precedence over the actual enforcement of immigration laws.  This analysis leads us to insist that the bundle of practices often referenced under the rubric of immigration enforcement can be better understood in terms of processes of immigrant policing.  And rather than understanding this social control model as an unfortunate byproduct of a policy shift in power over immigrant bodies, we suggest it may be, in fact, the driving logic of immigrant policing so far in the twenty-first century. 

Mat Coleman is Associate Professor of Geography at the Ohio State University. He is a former editorial board member of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Angela Stuesse is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South (University of California Press, 2016).