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The Devastating Effects of Immigration Detention

by Angel Valdez

In 2013, early in his papacy, Pope Francis’s first trip outside Rome was to minister to the immigrants who were in detention on the island of Lampedusa.  There he famously decried the “culture of indifference” which allows the world to ignore the sufferings of migrants and refugees, and instead he called for a culture of encounter that would lead us all to engage with migrants and “accompany” them on their journey.

Francis has marked the anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa every year since.  This year, on July 8, at a Mass to mark the 7thanniversary of his visit, Francis spoke of listening to a migrant who was describing the trauma of his journey.  Francis learned later that the translator had given an abridged version of the man’s suffering – what Francis called the “distilled version.”  But the distilled version is not enough.  Francis extolled everyone to listen deeply and stand in solidarity with the migrant so that we can “discover the face of [Jesus] in all our brothers and sisters who are forced to flee their homelands…” (Glatz, 2020).

Just such deep listening to the stories of migrants is evident in a recent report by Jesuit Refugee Service UK entitled “Detained and Dehumanized: The Impact of Immigrant Detention” (Jesuit Refugee Service United Kingdom [JRSUK], 2020).  Through a series of 27 structured interviews with individuals who had direct experience of immigration detention in the UK, the report reveals a “harrowing” experience which “fosters a culture of death.”  According to the report, “detention has a deep and lasting impact on the person: on mental and physical health, on the way one interacts with the world, and on sense of self and of one’s humanity. Its trauma stretches beyond the period of detention…” (JRSUK, 2020, p.7)

Some individuals interviewed by JRSUK reported feeling tricked or bullied by immigration officials into signing documents that were needed for their removal.  One described such an encounter saying, ‘You must sign otherwise you are not able to speak to your solicitor.  It’s like blackmail….I start having flashbacks, I start shaking….I had no choice so I signed….As soon as she [the officer] opened the door I saw a cage….I realized I was a prisoner.  It was like under my feet” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 10).

Because there is no set length of time for detention, individuals cannot know how long they will be held, and this is a source of suffering.  JRSUK interviewees said, “We don’t know when we will be released.  When we will have fresh air, when we can walk in the street…” and “When you enter there…you never know when you’re gonna come out…” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 16).

According to the JRSUK report, one participant spoke of the detention experience saying, “You are always scared, always in a state of panic that they will deport you…My country is not safe for me—but they … didn’t understand this” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 15).  Another participant spoke of seeing and hearing forced removals of fellow detainees, “From 6 o’clock [AM] you can hear people screaming, crying because they have come to force them back on a plane” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 15).

In addition to describing acute anxiety, the study said, participants reported that depression was common.  One said, “People were getting depressed and they started to lose their minds…the healthcare guy told someone, ‘this is what you deserve’ ” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 17).  A number of detainees who had been the victims of torture in their home countries experienced detention as a second torture: “People are coming here to seek protection not to be tortured for the second time” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 19).  Numerous participants said they were “dehumanized” and treated “like animals” (JRSUK, 2020, pp. 21-22).  One reported, “Going into detention, I felt terrible, de-humanized.  I had nobody, no voice.  I felt so much hatred for people like me”( JRSUK, 2020, p. 22).

Although the JSRUK study did not inquire about long term effects of detention, numerous individuals volunteered that it continued to haunt them.  One said, more that 10 years after being detained, “It’s still affecting me, even today” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 28) and another reported, “In the night if you sleep you hear officers open the door…When I see the police …I think they want to catch me, they want to do something with me”( JRSUK, 2020, p. 28).

The uncertainty of their situation was a source of suffering for many who were detained.  They told JRSUK, “The most awful thing was an uncertainty: Not knowing whether I will be released and what they’re going to do to me” and “Uncertainty, living indefinitely.  You don’t know what’s going to happen so fear and anxiety is always part of your life” and “You’re locked up and you don’t know what’s going on and what’s going to happen to you.  This is the worst thing you can do to a human being wherever they are from” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 16).

The findings of the JRSUK study are consistent with the findings of a wide range of quantitative research which examined detention in various countries.  Last year “The Impact of Immigration Detention on Mental Health: A Systematic Review” examined 26 separate studies of detained migrants reporting on a total of 2099 participants in Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US, and concluded that detention resulted in “high levels of mental health problems” (von Werthern, Robjant, Chui, Schon, Ottisova, Mason, & Katona, 2018).  Detainees commonly suffer anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder during and after detention, and those who were held in detention longer had worse symptoms.  Migrants who were detained suffer mental illness at greater rates than migrants who are not detained.  Indeed, one study found that detention “contributed independently to PTSD over and above the impact of past traumatic experiences” and another found  psychiatric disorders to be 10 times greater after detention than before (von Werthern et al., 2018, pp. 11-13).

Problems associated with detention (including lack of proper food, sanitation and healthcare, lack of transparency about the process, abuses by staff or immigration officers, various procedural injustices and the lack of any time set limitation for the detention) have been widely reported and are confirmed by the participants in the JRSUK study.  Of particular interest is the impact of uncertainty, and the way chaotic and contradictory policies and practices harm the mental and even physical health of migrants.  The experiences of those detained in the UK were very similar to those of individuals detained in other countries, including the United States.

Scholars, lawyers and healthcare workers have argued that current immigration policy in the United States, by constantly introducing ever more restrictive and sometimes contradictory requirements, which are neither clearly defined nor consistently enforced, leave migrants in a state of constant fear.  This phenomenon has been labeled “the violence of uncertainty” by Breanne L Grace, Rajeev Bais and Benjamin J Roth, a sociologist, doctor and social worker respectively, who explain  this form of structural violence “is perpetuated by policies of uncertainty that are intended to create systematic insecurity by constantly changing the terms of daily life and targeting what most matters to people—by separating immigrant children from their parents, for instance, or ending reunification of refugee families.” (Grace, Rajeev, & Roth, 2018).  The uncertainty generated by such an approach to immigration enforcement makes migrants fearful to interact with schools, hospitals and with government officials in general if even one member of their household is undocumented.

The violence of uncertainty is also evident in the experiences of people in detention.  The detention system is notorious for lack of transparency.  In the JRSUK report one man described being arrested in the street while his immigration case was pending.  He was detained and told he was to be deported.  He asked to be shown proof that his legal case was being denied, but the immigration officers refused.  Other participants told of being forced or tricked into signing documents they did not understand.  Another particularly damaging aspect of immigration detention is the fact that it continues for an uncertain duration, so that those being held have no idea when they will be released.  One participant stated, “People lose hope because you don’t know if you’re gonna be released.  It’s like you’ve disappeared” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 16).  The trauma of these conditions is amplified by the denials of communication between those in detention and their families and their lawyers.  Not only is it often impossible for families and lawyers to communicate with those in detention, at times they are not even certain where the detainee is being held.

by L. V. Diaz

It is important to note that asserting a claim for asylum is a legal right, yet migrants attempting to do so can be detained without any proof they have committed an illegal act.  One participant noted, “They’ve put me in prison for no reason …It’s prison for foreigners.  The only offense you committed was the fact that you were a foreigner and you came into this land” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 26).  Migrants who are detained are regularly prevented from telling their stories or making an individualized case to a judge.

One reason so much uncertainty is possible, the report notes, is the lack of judicial as opposed to administrative procedure.  In the UK (as in the US) the decision to detain in an administrative one.  The report states, “…where people are deprived of liberty in other areas of the law, this is subject to judicial oversight.  When people are detained for immigration purposes, they are incarcerated via an administrative procedure” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 31).

The JRSUK report argues that the creation of this unpredictable and hostile environment in detention is intentional, and is put in place to force the undocumented to despair and accept deportation.  One participant commented, “They put these conditions there for a reason.  The terrible conditions are there on purpose…Just to make life difficult for you…” and another said, “They do that on purpose to make you feel… broken down and say ‘okay I want to go back to my country’” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 25).

The violence of uncertainty has been especially evident in US immigration enforcement recently.  In May, The New York Times reported that hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children have been deported from detention alone since the advent of the COVID pandemic, in some cases without the knowledge of their families, in an abrupt departure from safeguards historically provided for children.  According to the Times, almost 1000 minors were expelled alone during March and April, while 166 other children were admitted and given the usual protections, yet Customs and Border Protection has refused to provide an explanation for what legal standards apply and why some children are given protection and others are not (Dickerson, 2020).  In one case, a 10-year old boy was sent to Honduras alone while his mother waited in Mexico and an uncle, who would have accepted custody the child, waited in Houston.  In other cases, lawyers and immigrant rights workers struggle to locate their minor clients who are within the detention system or who are suddenly being deported and yet they are refused information by the authoritiesThe lack of consistency and transparency in the current immigration system is not simply governmental incompetence.  These immigration practices are a kind of structural violence that is intended to keep immigrants constantly fearful and to make the process of obtaining authorization to live in the United States so fraught with trauma, risk and unpredictability that migrants will despair and abandon their efforts. Current immigration practice erodes the law because it undermines the ability of the migrant to present an individualized case based on evidence and reason.  Migrants who may meet the standards for gaining asylum are prevented from making their case to a judge. Instead, decisions on how individual migrants are treated are chaotic, inconsistent and arbitrary.

The structural violence of this uncertain immigration system and especially its detention practices impacts not just migrants, but all of us. We cannot ignore the trauma that migrants suffer at the hands of this system. There is ample, authoritative evidence that immigration detention leads to significant, lasting physical and mental harm.  One JRSUK interviewee reported, “I just feel as though my soul came out of my body” (JRSUK, 2020, p. 22) We cannot tolerate this in silence. We cannot look away. As Pope Francis has said, “…it is not only the cause of the migrants that is as stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, about the present and future of the human family” (“Message of his Holiness”, 2019).


Dickerson, C. (2020, May 20). 10 years old, tearful and confused after a sudden deportation. The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-migrant-children-unaccompanied-minors.html

Glatz, C. (2020, July 8). Migrants seeking new life end up in “hell” of detention. Catholic News Service. https://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2020/pope-migrants-seeking-new-life-end-up-instead-in-hell-of-detention.cfm

Grace, B. L., Rajeev, B., & Roth, B. J. (2018). The violence of uncertainty: Undermining immigrant and refugee health. New England Journal of Medince, 379(10), 904-905. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1807424

Jesuit Relief Services United Kingdom. (2020, June 27). Detained and dehumanized: The impact of immigration detention.https://www.jrsuk.net/news/jrsukdetentionreport/

Message of his Holiness Pope Francis for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019. (2019, September 29). The Holy See.


von Werthern, M., Robjant, K., Chui, Z., Schon, R., Ottisova, L., Mason, C. & Katona, C. (2018). The impact of immigration detention on mental health: A systematic review. BMC Psychiatry, 18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1945-y

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XL, No. 3, July-September 2020.