IN 1948, COLUMNIST FREDDIE FRANCISCO posed a series of questions to readers of the San Francisco Examiner. “How would you like to spend a year on the twelfth floor of a steel-and-concrete office building?” he began. “How would you like to live every hour of this period on concrete and tile metal, and never feel the soil beneath your feet, and never see your friends or relatives except through close woven mesh wire?”
“How would you like to do this…without having committed a crime as a cause for your circumstance?”
What Francisco described was standard practice within the mid-century American immigration detention system. In an unassuming San Francisco office building, U.S. immigration officials had incarcerated more than 500 Chinese immigrants, primarily G.I. war brides awaiting reunions with their husbands. Francisco told of the bureaucratic red tape, the squalid conditions, the lack of contact with the outside world. But he also stressed the peculiarity of hundreds of immigrants being held in an unmarked building in downtown San Francisco. It seemed likely that many San Franciscans had no idea these women were in a downtown office building—and in most cases, had been there for months on end.
That office building was one of a long line of structures designed by the U.S. immigration system to obscure its inhabitants. Throughout the 20th century, immigration detention has functioned as a shadow system of imprisonment in the United States, its brutality cloaked in the language of administrative process. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its predecessor, the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS), have gained power by making detention a process that is not only outside the consciousness of the American public, but also physically hidden.
American detention centers have been scattered across the country, and beyond—from roadside motels, to defunct missile testing sites, to iconic American locations like Ellis Island and Guantanamo Bay. They have been repeatedly, systematically insulated from media observation, and in many cases, legal intervention. What has resulted from this flexible, adaptable power is a super-secretive mess, reliant on immigration officials who serve as prosecutor, jury, and judge for some of the most vulnerable in America.
THE ISLAND PRISON
Ellis Island, Upper New York Bay
Ellen Knauff arrived in the United States on August 14, 1948. She was 33. The years prior to her arrival had been tumultuous: born to Jewish parents in Germany, she escaped to Czechoslovakia after Hitler came to power. She later journeyed to England as a refugee, where she served the Allies in the Royal Air Force. While in England she met her husband, an American G.I., and applied for admission to the U.S. under the War Brides Act, a 1945 law that streamlined admission for foreign-born wives and children of U.S. service members. Knauff arrived in the U.S. ready to begin a new life with her spouse, hoping, at last, for a little stability. “Here I was for the third time in my life seeking refuge in a new, strange country,” Knauff wrote in her 1952 memoir.
When Knauff handed her papers to an American border control officer, he explained, vaguely, that there was a problem. Knauff asked what was wrong, but the officer remained silent. Instead of entering New York City, Knauff left her vessel and boarded an Army tugboat destined for Ellis Island. “As we approached Ellis Island, I could see that parts of it were enclosed by double wire fences topped by barbed wire and marked by what appeared to be watchtowers,” Knauff later recalled. “These fenced-off areas were subdivided by more fences which gave the whole place the look of a group of kennels.” As immigrants peered out at Knauff from behind wire fences, one thing was clear: this was not the Ellis Island of the American imagination.
Knauff entered the detention facility at Ellis Island, assuming that the unnamed issue would be sorted out in a few hours. Three years later, after countless interrogations and a series of trials that brought her all the way to the Supreme Court, Knauff remained on Ellis Island, still unaware of the exact charges against her. Immigration officials declared her admission to the country “would be prejudicial to the interests of the United States,” but insisted they had no obligation to disclose the evidence used against an “enemy alien.” By and large, the courts agreed.
At the time of Knauff’s arrival, Ellis Island was no longer the beacon of freedom it had once been. During its peak years from 1900 to 1924, Ellis Island examined and admitted as many as 5,000 immigrants a day. The World Wars brought shrinking numbers of immigrants, and made it virtually impossible to deport foreign nationals back to enemy countries, lest an Allied or Axis submarine accidentally torpedo a deportation ship. Ellis Island became a de facto internment center, detaining up to 1,800 people, primarily natives of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
When World War II ended, many immigration officials assumed that Ellis Island’s role as a detention center would come to an end. But rather than a return to normalcy, paranoia about foreign influences and communist subversion generated even more aggressive detention practices. In Knauff’s case, it turned out that an anonymous tip from her husband’s vengeful ex-girlfriend, claiming that Knauff had been an informant to the Czech government, had triggered her extended detention. There was no actual evidence.
The Knauff case sparked renewed dialogue about the rights of immigrants and the questionable optics of an American detention center for foreigners in the wake of Nazi atrocities. Knauff became a cause célèbre for the ACLU and journalists around the country. In the autumn of 1951, three years after coming to the U.S., the Attorney General approved a 4-to-1 finding by the Board of Immigration Appeals that charges against Knauff were “uncorroborated hearsay,” and admitted her into America. Ellis Island closed for good in 1954.
THE DOWNTOWN DETENTION
630 Sansome Street; San Francisco, CA
Like Ellen Knauff, Leong Bick Ha came to the U.S. as a war bride, the Chinese wife of U.S. Army sergeant Ng Bak Teung. In 1948, following an extensive interview process with immigration officials in China, Leong traveled to the United States with her 15-year-old son to begin a new life. After arriving in San Francisco, Leong and her son faced a rigorous, and very backlogged, examination process before she could rejoin her husband—a sort of mid-century “extreme vetting.”
If Leong had arrived a few years prior, she would have been processed at Angel Island, an immigration station in San Francisco Bay. Though Angel Island was known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” it more closely resembled the post-war iteration of the New York Harbor center, fashioned to keep immigrants out rather than let them in. After a fire destroyed the station in 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) needed to find makeshift accommodations. It decided on a space at 630 Sansome Street in downtown San Francisco.
As news of Leong’s death trickled out, the Chinese-language media in San Francisco quickly seized on the story: “It is a tragedy we cannot bear to hear,” wrote one Chinese paper. Much like the accusations by civil liberties activists that Ellis Island had become an “American concentration camp,” Chinese newspapers questioned what the warehousing of veterans’ foreign-born family members would mean for the United States’ global reputation, noting that such actions would feed into anti-American sentiment on the part of the Chinese Communist Party. One hundred Chinese women in America went on a hunger strikes to protest their treatment, but it took years of additional public and political pressure, before the INS closed the detention center in 1954.
After the closure of Angel and Ellis Islands, the INS spread out, and in the words of one INS official, “deliberately placed the new [regional offices] in out-of-the-way places in order to make it difficult for immigration lawyers to access...and to insulate the agency from the input of individual members of Congress.” Immigration detention had become synonymous with indefinite incarceration, hunger strikes, and detainee suicides. Better to isolate such populations in places where they would be hidden both from the public, and from the journalists, lawyers, and reformers who had been their advocates.
THE BORDER PRISON
Port Isabel Processing Center; Los Fresnos, TX
When Ellis Island shuttered in 1954, U.S. policymakers congratulated themselves on the end of a regrettable era in immigration law enforcement. Bad publicity, as well as economic pressure from steamship companies that had been helping to foot the bill for American detentions, led to part of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which made immigration detention "the exception, not the rule." The law instituted a policy in which most potential deportees would be released on parole rather than detained. “Certainly this policy reflects the humane qualities of an enlightened civilization,” said Attorney General Tom Clark at the time.
The exception to this new rule concerned the area around the U.S.-Mexico border, where, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the U.S. continued to operate a string of detention centers. The centers became integral to implementing Operation Wetback (yes, that's its official name), a program launched in 1954 that deported an estimated 1.1 million undocumented migrants. Alongside the borderlands detention centers was a patchwork network of barns, fields, and even tomato warehouses, collectively referred to as “staging areas.”
Still, INS officials insisted, this process was vastly different than what was implemented on Ellis Island in prior years. Migrants generally stayed at these centers less than a day, awaiting speedy deportations back to Mexico. No one faced drawn-out interrogations or investigations. All Mexican migrants who couldn’t provide papers were, in the words of one official, taken across the border in vans and “dumped.”
The U.S.-Mexico border detention centers set critical precedents for the future of immigration detention. When the Border Patrol picked up female immigrants, it detained them in local jails rather than in detention centers, foreshadowing an important relationship between the growing U.S. prison system and the immigration service. If the Border Patrol repeatedly picked up a migrant during border crossings, the migrant served a six-month sentence in one of the border detention centers, further muddying the line between administrative and punitive detention. “Our fellow countrymen, packed in like cattle, lie on the ground in the open air, exposed to the burning rays of the sun by day, the torrential rains by night,” wrote Carlos Villenave, a reporter for the Mexico City newspaper Novedades, in 1954. “Whippings, clubbings, and other punishments are the rule for those who protest.”
THE SWAMP SPOT
Krome Service Processing Center; Miami, FL
Immigration detention nearly ended with the “enlightened” 1952 McCarren-Walter Act (also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act), if one ignored the Mexican-American border. Thirty years later, it was reborn in full in the swamps of the Florida Everglades.
On April 23, 1980, Fidel Castro opened the shipping port of Mariel, on Cuba’s northwest coast, and announced that any Cubans wishing to leave the Communist nation were free to go. Within hours, thousands of Cubans set sail for South Florida, beginning an exodus that would eventually bring about 100,000 Cuban asylum seekers to the U.S. But a less-publicized and perhaps even more vexing Caribbean refugee crisis emerged at the same time.
As thousands of Cubans were making their way to the United States, so were over 11,000 Haitian asylum seekers looking to escape their own grim reality back home. They navigated via makeshift boats and rafts across the Atlantic, hoping to reach the shores of Florida.
Political and economic conditions in Haiti had grown increasingly volatile throughout the 1970s. The U.S. State Department had noted a rapid deterioration of human rights under President Jean-Claude Duvalier, including the violent reign of a state-sponsored militia. Unlike Castro’s Cuba, however, Haiti didn’t have Communist leadership, which mean that the United States was unlikely to grant its citizens political refugee status; instead, it classified them as “economic migrants.” Still, by the boatload, they came.
As more and more asylum seekers washed ashore, the federal government became increasingly overwhelmed: Where would it put everyone? Were they dangerous? Was the U.S. obligated to give all of them asylum hearings? After decrying the Carter Administration’s wavering stance on refugees, the Reagan Administration took action almost immediately. "We have lost control of our borders. We have pursued unrealistic policies,” Attorney General William French declared to Congress in 1981. “We have failed to enforce our laws effectively." French announced that Reagan had endorsed “the necessity of detaining illegal aliens pending exclusion.”
Reagan immediately delegated all responsibility for immigration detention directly to the INS. Chaos ensued. Instead of formal rules or policies, the INS issued nebulous directions to its immigration officials to begin detaining immigrants and asylum seekers who did not have “a prima facie claim for admission”—an order that disproportionately affected the stigmatized Haitian asylum seekers. (A Florida district court would later find that the INS could “point to no operating instruction, internal memorandum or other document that (reflected) the official detention policy.”)
Krome Service Processing Center, a one-time missile testing facility, became the epicenter of the new American detention experiment. Located down a dirt road that snaked through the marshland of the eastern Florida Everglades, Krome looked like a fortress in a swamp. In 1982, the Washington Post published a photo essay entitled “Where Refugees Await Their Fate” which called Krome a site “of crushing boredom and boiling frustration” that resembled a “military installation.”
The fact that nearly all of the facility’s 600 or so detainees were Haitian catalyzed protests from South Florida’s Haitian community, as well as the NAACP. In January 1982, Rev. Jesse Jackson met with the representatives of the Vatican, and attempted to enlist the help of the Catholic Church in stopping U.S. detention practices. Jackson emphasized the racial bias in immigration policy, saying “If these were 600 Soviet Jews or 600 Polish refugees, the [U.S. government] would not allow them to be kept in those camps...There is a Statue of Liberty to greet white refugees and a statute of limitation to delete black refugees.”
Detention practices at Krome persisted more or less unchanged through the coming decade. In 1981, when the INS proposed moving Haitians to a new center at Fort Drum, New York, just miles from the Canadian border, many activists decided Krome might actually be a better alternative to a location the New York Times called equivalent to “moving the refugees to Siberia.”
But by 1994, reports trickled out that conditions at Krome had hit a low. A new wave of Haitian refugees stretched the limits of the facility, and soon Krome was holding 500 more immigrants than its capacity. As the center ran out of beds, female refugees slept in cots side-by-side in the lobby of the facility’s medical clinic, while the INS began setting up tents in a nearby yard for additional accommodations.
Detainees began staging hunger strikes and sending petitions and Congress began paying attention. In 1995, it sent a team of investigators on a fact-finding mission to Krome. Internal documents later revealed that the INS went to extensive lengths to hide the conditions at the detention center. Upon hearing of the congressional visit, the INS cleaned up the facility and temporarily transferred many detainees to other centers in order to alleviate the dramatic overcrowding. An INS e-mail regarding the investigation specified, “Current population is 377. We intend to move 40-50 aliens to non-Service facilities upstate...to be stashed out of sight for cosmetic purposes.” Inspectors at Krome removed their gun holsters and handcuffs in order to portray a “kinder, gentler” vision of immigration detention.
Guantánamo Bay Naval Base; Guantánamo Bay, Cuba
As controversy around the treatment of Haitian refugees swirled on the mainland, the INS was experimenting with a new detention site 500-plus miles away at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Starting in 1981, the U.S. Coast Guard began deploying ships to intercept Haitian boats as they approached the Florida coast. The logic was simple: if migrants never made it to American soil, the United States didn’t have to give them asylum hearings, didn’t have to pay for detention, and didn’t risk the intervention of U.S. legal advocates. The Reagan Administration also hoped that these measures would deter future Haitian asylum seekers. As stories of detention at Krome or interdiction on the high seas filtered back to Haiti, perhaps would-be migrants would abandon plans to leave.
But in the early 1990s, a coup in Haiti triggered a new exodus of asylum-seekers—far more than the Coast Guard could process aboard its ships. Policymakers formulated a new tactic in the detention experiment: They would set up 135 tents at Guantánamo Bay to hold the Haitians until the U.S. could decide what to do next. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s first option,” one immigration official said of the Gitmo tent city, “but against all the other bad options—of letting people drown at sea or taking them to Miami—it doesn’t look as bad.”
The United States selected Guantánamo explicitly because it was separate from the United States. “If you allowed the refugees onto U.S. territory,” a source told the LA Times, “You would make it possible for them to start up a court battle.” Guantánamo generated a legal gray area, where the U.S. could carefully control access of journalists, lawyers, and politicians. By November 1991, some 3,600 Haitians were in U.S. military custody. Nearly all would be repatriated to Haiti.
In 1994, further political instability in the Caribbean brought another outpouring of migrants from both Cuba and Haiti. Again, the U.S. relied relied on Guantánamo as a detention site, and the number of detainees soared to 60,000. Refugees stayed at the detention camps for longer periods of time. A community developed, with several competing newspapers (published in both Spanish and Creole), a makeshift athletics league, a tremendously under-resourced school. But the void between the treatment of the Cubans and the Haitians remained stark. The U.S. government eventually offered refugee status to nearly all of the detained Cubans, while sending nearly all Haitians back to their homeland.
At its peak, Gitmo hosted 14 separate detention camps but Camp Nine was the most notorious. It had all the usual markers of a Guantánamo detention site—the drab green tents, the armed U.S. soldiers, the wire fences—with one big difference. All the detainees were children. The 1994 wave of migrants included a substantial number of Haitian children who arrived without parents or guardians; some were orphaned in Haiti, others saw their parents drown in the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic.
Camp Nine became a PR nightmare as well as a site of unrest. When Attorney General Janet Reno announced a new policy on May 3, 1995, admitting nearly all of Gitmo’s remaining Cuban detainees to the United States, dozens of furious Haitian teens “first tried to organize a hunger strike with the younger children, then went on a rampage, pelting soldiers with rocks and setting tents on fire.” Psychologists pled for humanitarian intervention at Camp Nine, noting the rash of suicide attempts by detainees, as well as emerging stories of abuse by U.S. military personnel. “We just want to get out as fast as possible and go elsewhere,'' said a 17-year-old Haitian boy. “We are not criminals, but we are living in a prison.''
THE PROTO PRIVATE PRISON
Wyatt Detention Facility; Central Falls, RI
Before the United States had private prisons, it had private immigration detention centers. In 1980, the Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, together with the Corrections Commissioners of Tennessee and Virginia, founded the nation’s largest private-incarceration company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In 1983, the CCA received its first government contract to operate detention centers for the INS in Houston and Laredo, Texas. When the CCA won its contract in Houston it had not yet built a facility to hold detainees. The CCA found a run-down motel, setup some barbed wire gates, and begun cashing government checks—money for each filled detention bed. As a first foray into incarcerating people for profit, the government used the Houston detention center “as its canary in the coal mine” before moving on to privatizing prisons of citizen-criminals.
Privatized detention centers provided a final layer of insulation and protection for the government, and post-9/11, private companies received almost every contract for new immigration detention facilities. Though companies like Corrections Corporation of America had looked to be on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1990s, by the early 2000s, they were enjoying a renewed interest— and the financial windfalls that followed—in the prison and immigration detention industrial complex.
In this way, the paranoia and xenophobia that first defined the immigrant detention experience after World War II came full circle. In 2007, ICE officials arrested a man named Hiu Lui Ng who had lived in the U.S. for fifteen years on an overstayed visa. ICE brought Ng to Wyatt Detention Facility, a privatized detention center in Rhode Island operated by Cornell Companies. Over the next year, ICE transferred Ng five times through three different states, in jails all under contract with federal immigration authorities.
His transfers were made without alerting his family or legal counsel; private contractors have no explicit duty to do so. He complained of poor health, yet was transferred to facilities with no medical care. (In at least one case, ICE officers physically dragged him into a transport van.) On August 6, 2008, Hiu Lui Ng died in ICE custody. Doctors later discovered he had a fractured spine and previously undiagnosed liver cancer that spread throughout his entire body.
In 2009, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Ng’s widow against Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, ICE, and various other employees of the facilities which detained Ng. The government responded with a simple claim: Even though we award the contracts, we are not responsible for the actions of contractors. (In 2012, the ACLU settled for undisclosed, admittedly multimillion dollar sum.)
The courts are split on ICE’s argument. Sometimes the judiciary has declared that the actions of a private company running a detention facility qualify as a “state action,” and other times, it has concluded that the state had “no supervisory authority” over private contractors. But though the outcome varies, lawmakers continue to embrace the potential of private detention centers to operate at lower costs, with fewer rules, and less financial risk for the state.
Stories of mistreatment in privatized detention centers today are features, not bugs, the culmination of decades of secrecy and abuse.
In 2009, political scientist Jacqueline Stevens published a bombshell study on ICE “subfield centers.” Stevens discovered that ICE maintained about 186 unlisted and unmarked detention centers, often “in suburban office parks or commercial spaces revealing no information about their ICE tenants.” To access one unmarked detention center, “B-18” in downtown Los Angeles, you walk down a sidewalk, into an underground parking garage, turn right, open a big door, and enter into what Stevens calls “a barely converted storage space” in a federal building. Even if you know what to look for, these sites are hard to find. In many ways, ICE’s secret facilities are a logical next step in a long history of removing immigrants from judicial norms and public oversight. The use of Orwellian language—like "Service Processing Center”—and unmarked installations persist. For detainees, the purgatorial state provokes what Ellis Island’s Ellen Knauff called “a sort of mental death.” For government officials, it’s simply a convenient solution to a complicated issue.
As an ICE spokesman told an audience of law enforcement in 2009—“If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.”