Immigration Detention 101: Information for Detainees’ Family and Friends

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, or
  • 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 detainee 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.) Otherwise you’ll need to know the person’s date of birth, country of birth, and name as it appears in the ICE’s system. You might need to try different names or different spellings of names.

Unfortunately, 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 field office nearest you.

If the person is not in ICE-operated detention facility, 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 an ICE 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 U.S. 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. ICE 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 ICE expense. For example, if someone has recently had surgery and requires regular medication, ICE is supposed to provide this medication. ICE does not always follow through on its obligations, however. If ICE 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

When someone is in an immigration detention facility, the most important thing to you may be to get the person out. Make sure this is the wise thing to do, however—immigration court proceedings will move much more quickly if the person is detained, and there may be good reasons for getting to see a judge sooner rather than later. Most of the time, however, it’s better to get out of the detention facility and have an immigration judge hear the case later. An immigration lawyer will be able to help with your decision.

If you would like to get the detainee released, the first thing you need to do is find out whether ICE has set a bond. The “bond” is similar to “bail” in the criminal courts. It is an amount of money paid to ICE 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 flees.)

Under the law, some people are not eligible for bond, and must remain in the detention facility until an immigration judge decides whether they should be removed (deported). If the ICE deportation officer tells you that the detainee “has no bond,” ask the officer whether that means the amount of the bond has not been determined yet, or whether it means the detainee is not eligible for bond. If you’re told that the detainee is not eligible for bond, you might want to consult with an immigration lawyer to see whether ICE is correct.

If the detainee is eligible for a bond, ICE will tell you what the amount they want you to pay. If you can’t pay that amount, or if you think it’s too high, 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 or how much the bond should be. You don’t have to wait for your first scheduled court date to have the judge decide about bond—you can ask the court to schedule your bond hearing as soon as possible.

At the bond 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. If the judge finds that the detainee should be released and ICE has set no bond amount yet, the judge will set a bond amount that must be paid before release. If you are challenging the amount set by ICE, the judge will determine how much the bond will be. The judge will want to know whether the detainee is likely to show up to future immigration court hearings, and whether the detainee would be a danger to the community if released from the detention facility. Be careful about asking the judge to change the bond amount—the judge has the power to lower the amount but also the power to raise the amount if something bad about you comes up during the bond hearing.

As of early 2016, 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. (Master Calendar means the immigrant and other people are scheduled for court on the same day at the same time.) At the Master Calendar hearing, 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 an “Individual Hearing” date. (Individual Hearing means the immigrant’s case is the only one scheduled for that time on that day.)

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 Noncitizens in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.

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