U.S. Bishops Issue Scathing Report On Federal Detention Center Policy

A detailed and highly critical analysis of the U.S. immigration detention system by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies is calling for a radical restructuring of the way the government handles undocumented immigrants.

Released on May 11, the 44-page report tracks the growth of the detention system over the last 20 years and the rise of private prison companies to help handle the load, while documenting the long delays and lack of funding in the immigration court system. The report makes the case for “alternative to detention” programs that would be as effective, less costly and more just than the current system, which relies on local, state and federal facilities where detainees’ “lives are governed by standards designed for criminal defendants.”


“The U.S. detention system deprives persons of liberty, divides families, inhibits integration, and prevents participation in the broader society,” the report’s authors conclude, adding later that the system is “neither humane nor, in its current form, necessary.”

"Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Detention System” is prefaced by a letter from Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, a member of the committee and the chair of the Center for Migration Studies. “The U.S. detention system represents a far cry from solidarity or communion,” the bishops write. “It divides us from our brothers and sisters. It contributes to the misconception that immigrants are criminals and a threat to our unity, security and well-being.”

In the past, the bishops have called for the termination of detention for undocumented families, an argument they reiterate here. Facilities for women and children have expanded since the influx of families from Central America in 2013-14. But the current report goes a step further, calling for all detention facilities to be used “sparingly, for a brief period and as a last resort.”

The report argues against using detention as a way to deter other migrants from traveling to the United States, citing a U.N. report that “harsh detention policies over a 20-year period have not resulted in a decrease in irregular migration.” It also compares the detention system to the U.S. criminal justice system, in which defendants are routinely released with the expectation that they will show up for court hearings or face penalties.

Such a strategy should also be used for undocumented immigrants, the report argues, especially since many of these individuals have no other criminal record: “Many persons in removal proceedings enjoy strong family, employment, and community ties in the United States, making them unlikely to abscond with proper supervision and support.”

The report’s authors acknowledge that “alternative to detention” programs would have to be expanded to accommodate the undocumented population. But they argue that “community-based, case management services” would be less expensive than holding undocumented immigrants in prison-like settings.

The report also argues that the role of for-profit prisons, which lobby heavily for their own interests, “should be curtailed and rigorously monitored.” Nineteen percent of detainees are held in private facilities. It suggests that Congress should eliminate the national policy of mandatory detention “in all but the most egregious criminal and national security cases” and that immigrants seeking asylum should not be “penalized for legal entry or stay.”

To reduce backlogs, the report recommends that Congress set aside more funds for the immigration court system. Finally, the report notes that while “properly crafted” laws could help reduce the burden on the current system, “detention reform does not require and should not wait for passage of comprehensive reform legislation.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Leonard Villa
3 years 7 months ago
All the onus and blame is placed on the US. The report does not consider our porous border with illegal aliens overwhelming the system. The President and Democrats have no interest in enforcing Immigration Law (they see in the flood of illegals Democratic votes for the future) in order that entry into this country can proceed in an orderly lawful way. Blame-the-U.S. is the knee-response of what passes for liberalism these days which evidently is the overriding philosophy at the USCCB calling this "social justice." Does the government of Mexico have any responsibility for this situation or the countries in Central America? Does the USCCB have any concern about Mexican drug cartels operating on US soil often brazenly crossing the border to enforce its terror and evil? Will we see an essay on that in America? Does the USCCB have any concern about the threat of terrorism because of this situation? A one-sided a report here which points to real problems but neglects to look at the sources of these problems.
Michael Malak
3 years 7 months ago
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan, contained an amnesty provision that allowed 2.7 million undocumented immigrants to stay here and become part of American society, legally. Immigration control is not a conservative versus liberal issue. It is, instead, one of Christian justice. Had we turned immigrants away, in previous generations, what would the country be like today? Would we be as great a nation if we'd rejected those who came here seeking a better life, freedom from violence, poverty, and despair? Why do these people deserve condemnation and imprisonment on account of their belief that we are the way to a better life? Sadly, the poor, Hispanic, nature of today's immigrants makes them an easy target for politicians advocating fear, individuals unwilling to contribute financially to the social justice we tout worldwide and, not least, those who fear being out-voted, one day. To them, this is not, really, a justice issue at all, it's one that resides closer to the pocketbook than the heart.


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019