Immigration Detention 101: Information for Detainees’ Family and Friends

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The U.S. government is using detention with increasing frequency as a means of dealing with undocumented or otherwise removable immigrants after their arrest. When a friend or loved one has been placed in detention, it can be difficult to try to discover information on the person’s whereabouts. This article discusses the detention process and how to contact and help a friend or family member who has been detained.

Why the Government Detains Immigrants

The government will typically detain an immigrant because it believes either that he or she is a “flight risk” and may move to another location within the U.S. or that he or she poses a public safety threat. Detention allows the government to secure an immigrant’s appearance before the Immigration Court.

There are many reasons why someone can be detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its enforcement arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These include, but are not limited to the person having:

  • committed a crime, or multiple crimes
  • arrived at the border without a visa prior to formally applying for asylum or refugee status
  • an outstanding removal (deportation) order on record, either pending or past due, and
  • missed prior immigration hearing dates.

What to Do After Learning an Immigrant Has Been Detained

When you first find out that someone you know is in detention, you can potentially find out the person’s location using the ICE locator website. It will help to have the person’s Alien Number (A#) on hand, if any. (A green card or work permit will show this number.)

However, if the person was only recently detained, the website may not be updated with the latest information. Also, the system does not give information for people under 18 years of age. In such cases, you’ll need to contact the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations nearest you.

If the person is not in ICE detention, he or she may have been taken to a local jail or correctional facility. You’ll want to start calling all the ones in the area. Explain who you are, and ask for information on what’s going on and how to visit or help.

If the detainee is located in a DHS facility, your next step is to try to call his or her deportation officer. You will likely need to explain who you are and your relationship with the detainee. The officer can tell you how to call or visit the detainee – or pay for the detainee to be able to call you - and how you can send any needed items. Be careful about what you reveal to the officer, however. Say nothing about the person’s country of citizenship or immigration status (or the lack thereof) in the United States, as anything you say can be used as evidence against the detainee in Immigration Court.

Another option (or necessity, if the ICE officer refuses to speak with you) is to hire an experienced immigration attorney to assist you in tracking down the deportation officer and maintaining lines of communication. Also, if the detainee requires regular medical care, an attorney can ensure he or she receives that care.

It is important to act quickly, especially if the detainee has been deported from the United States previously or has an outstanding removal order (in which case he or she has no right to see an immigration judge). A detainee can be removed within a few days, or even hours, of the initial detention. Even if the government does not immediately remove the person, it sometimes transfers detainees between facilities – sometimes in other states, if the person appears to have no immediate family in the area – without warning.

The Role of the Deportation Officer

As indicated above, each detainee is assigned a deportation officer. The officer has the power to offer voluntary departure, stipulated removal, or some other form of release from detention. The detainee (or his or her attorney) should review any such offers carefully.

Accepting a voluntary departure, for instance, though it doesn’t leave an order of removal on the person’s record, can result in the detainee forgoing any relief to which he or she may be entitled, such as asylum or cancellation of removal. There may be other options and forms of relief (such as Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Removals, or Cancellation of Removal) that an attorney might recommend that that the deportation officer has not mentioned.

It is important to try to research all the options for relief prior to the beginning of formal immigration court hearings.

Conditions in Detention Facilities.

Immigration detention is not too different than jail or prison. DHS either operates the facilities independently or, increasingly, contracts with local sheriff or police departments to house detainees. Therefore, the physical layout of the facility, level of crowding, available amenities, and whether detainees are housed alongside state prisoners may vary widely.

Detainees who have medical conditions have the right to appropriate medical treatment at DHS expense. For example, if someone has recently had surgery and requires regular medication, DHS is supposed to provide this medication. DHS does not always follow through on its obligations, however. If DHS fails to provide such care, contact an immigration attorney who can advocate on the detainee’s behalf.

Getting the Person Out of Detention While Awaiting Further Action

Once you are able to contact the detainee, you or the detainee’s attorney can make a motion for a “bond hearing.” Every detainee is entitled to a bond hearing to determine whether the detainee can be released.

At the hearing, the immigration judge may either find that the detainee is subject to mandatory detention, or that the detainee can be released on a bond. The “bond” is similar to “bail” in the criminal courts. It is meant to guarantee that the detainee will show up for future court dates and obey whatever order the judge ultimately issues. (The money will be returned if the detainee follows through – or forfeited if he or she does flees.)

If the judge finds that the detainee should be released, he or she will set a bond amount that must be paid before release. As of early 2013, the minimum bond amount is $1,500, but it can go much higher than that, up to $20,000 or more. If you are planning to pay this on the detainee’s behalf, you will need to have legal status in the U.S. and bring photo identification. You may also need to arrange for the person’s pickup -- not all detention centers will give them a ride to the nearest bus station or airport.

After the bond hearing, the immigration judge will set a “Master Calendar” hearing date. At the Master Calendar, the immigrant will answer the government’s allegations and request any forms of relief to which he or she may be entitled. If the person claims some form of relief, the judge will set a Merits Hearing date.

The entire removal process can take years or it can take a few months, depending on the kind of relief the detainee has available, whether the court docket is crowded, and other factors. That means an immigrant to whom the judge does not allow release on bond can potentially spend a long time in detention – a situation worth avoiding, as described in “Living Conditions in Immigration Detention Centers.” An attorney may, in such a circumstance, be able to obtain the person’s release by filing what’s called a habeas corpus action in federal court, claiming that such a lengthy detention is unconstitutional. 

To get more information on the deportation process, see “Immigrants in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.” 

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