Many Families Spending the Holidays Separated because of Broken U.S. Immigration System

As millions of families gather together this Christmas, millions more remain separated as a result of the United States’ broken and byzantine immigration system. Outdated visa quotas, lengthy processing backlogs and wait times—often stretching for years or decades—for visa and permanent residency applications are part of the problem. Meanwhile, a costly enforcement bureaucracy that increasingly criminalizes immigration leading to a record number of detentions and deportations, all lead to the unnecessary separation of families. Spouses are separated from their partners and children. Children are separated from their parents. And in the many mixed-status families in the United States, U.S. citizens are separated from their foreign-born family members. Excessive enforcement within a flawed immigration system harms families and the communities where they live and work, imposing barriers to local immigrant integration and community building initiatives.

Children, already among the most vulnerable members of society, are often those most harmed by the United States’ antiquated immigration system. In addition to immigrant children residing in the U.S. with their parents, over four million U.S. citizen children live in mixed-status families in which at least one parent is an undocumented immigrant. As a result of the increased spending and infrastructure for immigration enforcement, a growing number of parents are apprehended and incarcerated indefinitely or deported for relatively minor offenses. Subsequently, children are either forced to leave their homes in the U.S., or remain in the U.S. permanently separated from their parents. Although there are a little over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, millions more people, including U.S. citizens, live within mixed-status families. Immigration enforcement, therefore, affects many more than just undocumented immigrants. Indeed, it impacts the lives of all people living in the United States. But what are some of the ways in which enforcement within a broken system is carried out? Who benefits? And how are barriers imposed for immigrant integration in communities?

Enforcement within a Broken System

Over the past couple of decades, a mixture of legislation, new programs, and administrative policy changes have largely involved criminalizing aspects of the immigration system that were previously treated only as minor civil infractions, creating the costly “rise of a formidable machinery” of a “muscular immigration enforcement system.” Detention Watch Network notes that “being in violation of immigration laws is not a crime. It is a civil violation for which immigrants go through a process to see whether they have a right to stay in the United States. Immigrants detained during this process are in non-criminal custody.” The criminalization of immigration law along with increased spending on a bloated enforcement infrastructure has led to a record number of immigrants in detention and who are ultimately deported. For example, while the immigration detention system detained around 70,000 people in 1996, around 400,000 people were detained in 2012.

Why is this increase in detention occurring? “Although studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans,” states Michael Tan, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Right’s Project, “politicians continue to exploit the public’s fear of crime to justify ever more punitive immigration measures, including the mass incarceration of immigrants for reasons that would never be permitted for U.S. citizens.” In essence, there are two systems of justice in the United States: one for citizens and one for immigrants. The latter falls far short of the ideals of liberty and justice for all enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Detention Watch Network chillingly describes aspects of the U.S. detention and deportation system: “immigrants in detention include families, both undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the U.S. for years and are now facing exile, survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including pregnant women, and individuals who are seriously ill without proper medication or care.” Moreover, “torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, and other vulnerable groups can be detained for months or even years, further aggravating their isolation, depression, and other mental health problems associated with their past trauma.” Detention Watch Network also remarks that the surge in detention and deportation results in immigrant suffering in squalid conditions as well as abuse in detention facilities across the country. Furthermore, families are being separated often for life while the private prison industry and county prisons are garnering huge profits.

The mass incarceration of immigrants is a billion-dollar industry. Private, for-profit prison corporations, such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, operate many immigration detention facilities across the country and are involved in lobbying activities to secure government contracts. With little federal oversight, documented abuse of detainees runs rampant in these facilities, places that typically do not fall under the national Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention standards. Also, the Department of Homeland Security buys additional bedspace from more than 200 local county and city prisons around the country to house additional detainees.

While indefinite detention and family separation are bad enough, there is also a fiscal factor. Who ultimately foots the bill? Private prisons pocket millions of taxpayer dollars every year because of quotas and “bed mandates,” which currently require around 34,000 individuals be held each day in immigration detention. In fact, ICE spends around $2 billion a year to detain immigrants. It costs around $164 per day to keep someone locked up in a detention facility.  Alternatively, a variety of community-based supervision programs would cost around $12 per person per day, and these programs would allow families to remain intact and community members to remain within their communities. Conspicuously, the private prison industry is the primary beneficiary of the extensive expansion of immigration enforcement spending and detention, not the American people who pay the expanding bill, and certainly not the families and communities impacted by mandatory detention of immigrants.

Immigrant Integration and Community Cohesion

At the local level, local law enforcement professionals are overwhelmingly against proposals that require them to enforce federal immigration law. Their view is that local enforcement of immigration undermines community trust built between a local police force and members of the local community. For example, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association has expressed that Congressional proposals such as the SAFE Act would “undermine the trust and cooperation between police officers and immigrant communities, which are essential elements of community-oriented policing.” Such measures would “result in fear and distrust of local police,” damaging their efforts to prevent crime and weakening their ability to “apprehend those who prey upon the public. Moreover, it would divert scarce resources away from the core mission of local police—to create safer communities.” Local enforcement of federal immigration law has been shown to lead to immigrants withdrawing from public life, damaging immigrants’ engagement with the broader community. Additionally, when immigrant consumers stay at home, local businesses are negatively impacted by their absence. All of these actions result in barriers imposed for local immigrant integration initiatives.

The culture of enforcement infrastructure and spending within the immigration system harms family unity. Because family unity is harmed, immigrant integration, and subsequently community cohesion are also harmed. As Cecilia Menjívar (Arizona State University) and Leisy Abrego (UCLA) describe, “the family, the workplace, and the school are the key social institutions that gave previous waves of immigrants a strong foothold in this country, allowing their children and their children’s children to prosper. We know that today’s immigrants are already integrating into public life—learning English, going to school, and buying homes, among other things.” Furthermore, “when everyone living in the United States is able to fully integrate, our communities are better off. A more thorough process of immigrant integration will result in: more upward mobility over time, more educational opportunities to train the workforce of tomorrow, a stronger sense of belonging, greater investment in the collective future of the country, and a more cohesive society.”

The growing list of cities, counties, metropolitan regions, and states planning and implementing immigrant integration initiatives—places seeking to attract, welcome, and retain immigrants to their communities—are working against the grain of an outdated system that is literally ripping families apart. Efforts to encourage and facilitate immigrant integration at the local level are hindered by an archaic and labyrinthine immigration system with a large focus on enforcement, detention, and deportation.


While the continued enforcement within a broken system harms families directly, the broader communities within which they live are also impacted. Integration strategies are therefore impeded. When immigrants and their families are split apart, or live with the fear that they may be separated because of a system based on a culture of enforcement rather than immigrant integration, regardless of their status, all people and communities lose out. And as Menjívar and Abrego note, “immigrants represent progress and the future well-being of U.S. society. But the confluence of immigration enforcement, fear of today’s enforcement strategies, and a general stigma of immigration status…has the potential to hinder the incorporation of generations of immigrants.”

In 2012, Sociologist Matthew Lee, referring to a 1998 chapter by sociologists John Hagan and Alberto Palloni, suggests that communities and the country as a whole would be better served by “finding ways to preserve, protect, and promote the social capital that immigrants bring to their experience in the United States, rather than overemphasize issues of crime and punishment.” Lee reiterates Hagan and Palloni’s argument that “a focus on crime is a distraction from the more important policy question of how to support the substantial social capital that immigrants bring to this country. Immigrants have breathed new life into many areas where they have settled and often (not always) have reduced crime rates as an added bonus. ” An immigration system that encourages and supports immigrant integration nationally and locally will help strengthen communities, cities, and metropolitan areas. If comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality, in coming years, hopefully more families will be able to celebrate Christmas and other holidays together.


Further Reading

The Whole Truth about Immigration Detention. 2013. Washington, D.C.: Detention Watch Network.

Judy Greene and Sunita Patel. 2007. The Immigrant Gold Rush: The Profit Motive Behind Immigrant Detention. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants.

Matthew T. Lee. 2013. “The Need for Social Policies that Support the Revitalizing Effects of Immigration Rather than Law Enforcement Initiatives that Assume Disproportionate Immigrant Criminality.” Criminology and Public Policy 12, 2: 277-282.

Doris Meissner, Donald M. Kerwin, Muzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron. 2013. Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute.

Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego. 2012. Legal Violence in the Lives of Immigrants: How Immigration Enforcement Affects Families, Schools, and Workplaces. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

Michael Tan. 2011. Locked Up Without End: Indefinite Detention of Immigrants Will Not Make America Safer. Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center.

Two Systems of Justice: How the Immigration System Falls Short of American Ideals of Justice. 2013. Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center.

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