Immigration Detention 101: Information for Detainees’ Family and Friends

What to do after discovering that a non-citizen friend or family member has been put into ICE detention.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

The U.S. government has the power to place undocumented or otherwise removable immigrants into a detention facility after their arrest. When a friend or loved one has been placed in immigration detention, it can be difficult to try to discover information on their whereabouts. This article discusses the U.S. immigration detention process and how to contact and help a foreign-born friend or family member who has been detained.

Why the U.S. Government Detains Immigrants

The government will typically detain immigrants because it believes either that they are "flight risks" and might secretly move to another location within the U.S. before it can finish deciding whether or not to deport them, or that they pose a public safety threat. Detention allows the government to secure an immigrant's appearance before the Immigration Court (also called the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR).

There are many reasons why foreign nationals 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 people 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.

The upshot is that the immigration detention process can move quickly, leaving loved ones scrambling to figure out where their family member is.

What to Do After Learning an Foreign National Has Been Detained

When you first find out (or hear rumors) that someone you know is in U.S. immigration detention, you can potentially find out their location using the ICE detainee locator website.

It will help to have the person's Alien Number (A#) on hand, if you know it. (A green card or work permit or deportation-related correspondence from U.S. immigration authorities will show this number.) Otherwise, you'll need to know their date of birth, country of birth, and name as it appears in 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 might 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 (ERO) field office nearest to where the person was picked up.

The person might be detained in an ICE detention facility or a local jail or correctional facility that is under a contract with ICE (known as an Intergovernmental Services Agreement or an IGSA) to house ICE detainees. In either situation, an ICE deportation officer will have been assigned their case. If you have questions about how to contact or visit a detainee, or have a concern about the detainee, these questions should be directed to the assigned deportation officer.

For instance, ICE is required to follow national detention standards for the safety of both staff as well as detainees, so if you have information about a detainee's medical condition, this absolutely should be brought to the deportation officer's attention. 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.

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.

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 they've lost the 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 U.S. government does not immediately remove the person, it sometimes transfers detainees between facilities, and sometimes even to other states if they appear to have no immediate family in the area. It commonly takes such actions without giving advance warning.

Role of the Deportation Officer in a Foreign-Born Detainee's Case

As indicated above, each detainee is assigned a deportation officer. The officer has the power to offer such options for release as voluntary departure, stipulated removal, or some other arrangement. The detainee (or 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 forgoing any forms of relief to which the detainee might be entitled, such as asylum or cancellation of removal. There could be other options and forms of relief (such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that an attorney who has studied that case might recommend, and 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. An attorney can help with this.

Conditions in U.S. Immigration Detention Facilities

Immigration detention is not very different than jail or prison. ICE either operates the facilities independently or, as mentioned above, enters into an IGSA with state or county facilities to house ICE detainees. Therefore, the physical layout of the facility, level of crowding, available amenities, and whether detainees are housed alongside state prisoners varies widely across the country.

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. Or if the person's glasses get broken, ICE should arrange for new ones. 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.

How to Get Green Card Medical Exam for Someone in Immigration Detention

In some situations, most often when there's a case to be made for the foreign national to receive a U.S. green card, an immigration judge might require the detainee to get a medical examination. How can someone go to the doctor if in a locked facility?

While it is slightly more difficult than the normal procedure, and might be more expensive, you should be able to find a doctor who is willing to go out to the detention facility and conduct the examination.

Purpose of the Medical Exam: To Help Prove Admissibility to the U.S.

Section 212(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. § 1182) requires that an applicant for permanent residence or a green card not be inadmissible due to a health-related issue. Minor medical problems won't prevent someone from getting a green card, but more serious diseases, drug addiction, or certain types of mental or physical disorders can. To read more, see How Health Issues Can Make You Inadmissible to the U.S.

The procedure for getting a medical examination is roughly the same whether or not a person is detained by U.S. immigration authorities. A USCIS-approved civil surgeon (this just means a doctor who has applied to USCIS for approval) must examine the applicant and then write down a list of medical findings on a USCIS form called an I-693 Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record.

First, Speak to the Detention Center Authorities and ICE Officer

When someone is in immigration detention, the challenge is getting the doctor to the detention center and making sure that the doctor is allowed to enter. Some immigration detention centers have procedures for doing medical examinations, and some ICE offices will arrange the medical examination for the detainees. So, the first thing to do is to speak to two people: the ICE officer who is in charge of the foreign national's case and the responsible person at the detention center.

Ask your family member for the name of the ICE officer in charge of their case. Your family member might be able to contact that person, or you can call the number for the field office and ask to speak with the officer. Find the number for the field office at The ICE officer will have to confirm with the detention center that the foreign national needs a medical examination. In some cases, the officer might be able to arrange one directly. This often depends upon the local practice of the ICE field office and that specific detention center.

However, in many places the officer will tell you to find the doctor first and then call back to set up the appointment. Once you have found the doctor, you should confirm both with the ICE officer and with the detention facility that the date and time have been approved. Otherwise, the doctor might not be allowed to perform the examination.

How to Find a USCIS-Approved Civil Surgeon

USCIS provides an online tool that shows all of the doctors close to you who are approved to carry out medical exams. Go to and type in the zip code of the detention center, and it will show you a list of results with the doctor's name, phone number, and office location. You will probably need to call several doctors and ask if they are willing to go to the detention center and what their fees are. USCIS doesn't set the fees that the doctors can charge, and some might charge extra for traveling somewhere to perform the medical exam.

You should also confirm that the doctor has enough appointment slots open so as to perform the examination and provide the results in time (before your husband's full individual hearing).

Once you have found a doctor, confirm with the ICE officer and the detention center the date and time of the appointment. Make sure that the ICE officer and the detention facility have spoken to each other and are aware of the appointment.

After Medical Examination, Pick Up I-693 Report From Doctor

Call the doctor's office after the examination and ask how long it will take to get the results. This is usually fairly quick, depending on the doctor's schedule. The doctor's office will provide you with a sealed envelope and you can ask for a separate copy for your own records.

This is very important: Do not open the sealed envelope. You must take this envelope to court and give it to the government attorney, not to the judge. The government attorney will unseal it in court and determine whether the person has any health-related issues of inadmissibility.

Getting the Person Out of Detention While Awaiting Further Action

When someone is in an immigration detention facility, the most important thing to you might be getting them 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 could be good reasons you'd want them 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 at a much later date. An immigration lawyer will be able to help with your decision.

If you would like to get the detainee released, the first thing to do is find out whether ICE has set a bond. The "bond" is similar to "bail" in the U.S. 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 not.)

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 the amount it wants 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 the 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 immigration 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 it if something bad about the detainee comes up during the bond hearing.

The minimum bond amount is set at $1,500 (I.N.A. § 236(a)(2)(A)), but it can go much higher, 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 might also need to arrange for the person's pickup—not all detention centers will give rides to the nearest bus station or airport.

After the bond hearing, the immigration judge will set a "Master Calendar" or initial 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 potential forms of relief. 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 potentially available, whether the court docket is crowded (as it often is), 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 might, 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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