Report: People Formerly Incarcerated in U.S. Immigration Detention Speak Out Against a System That Is Cruel by Design


New report on world’s largest detention system shows policies designed to punish immigrants spread coronavirus and how  system degrades and dehumanizes people

February 3, 2022 — ICE detention practices during the pandemic have shone a spotlight on the unacceptable conditions in the U.S.  immigration detention system. ICE practices were found to not only spread the coronavirus in and between facilities, but also in communities and globally. A new report highlights the narratives of people who were held in ICE detention and makes clear that cruelty is not an aberration or an accident but the goal of a system built to inflict harm and break people’s spirits. It cannot be remedied through reforms that do not address its perverse logic, the report finds; the system must be altered at its core. 

“Cruel by Design: Voices of Resistance from Immigration Detention,” published by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights, reveals that cruelty is part of the everyday experience of people caught in the system. Drawing from dozens of declarations filed in legal proceedings to challenge detention during COVID as well as interviews with formerly detained people, the report details endemic injustices and indignities, including physical abuse, racism, unsafe and unhygienic conditions, retaliation, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and denial of medical and mental health treatment, even as inhumane conditions increase the need for each. 

By showing how the system is “Cruel by Design,” the report illustrates how the abusive conditions serve a practical purpose: to compel immigrants to abandon their efforts to live in the United States. 

“[W]e are human, but ICE doesn’t think that,” said Edinson Calderon, who was detained for four months after fleeing homophobia in Venezuela. “They make situations like the one I had, only because they want to hear you say, ‘Please deport me.’ That’s it.”

The other people featured in the report are Joseph Thompson, a green card holder from Jamaica; Nilson Barahona Marriaga, an immigrant from Honduras who has lived in Georgia for 20 years; Keshia C., a refugee from Cameroon; and Joaris Hernandez, who left El Salvador after gang members assaulted and threatened to kill her. 

Although these accounts describe suffering, they also illustrate the power of organizing and community support and the tremendous will of people to overcome oppression. 

“The U.S. government created an immigration detention system that uses dangerous and abusive conditions to try to deter migration and make it as easy as possible to deport people. The misery it creates is the point,” said Mizue Aizeki, Deputy Director of the Immigrant Defense Project. “The organizing and resilience of detained community members during the pandemic raised the profile of this cruel system. Now we must harness this moment to abolish the system altogether.”

“The U.S. immigration and border enforcement system is not a system of public safety, but rather one of punishment that causes immense harm and exclusion,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Ending the cruel practices of confining and mistreating immigrants cannot be achieved through incremental change but instead requires building the power of people inside immigration jails and community support on the outside.”  

Never has the cruelty at the core of the system been more evident than during the COVID era. Throughout the pandemic, ICE has continued to apprehend and detain people at a furious pace, failing to implement quarantines and other safety precautions, fueling outbreaks and contributing to the spread of the virus throughout the United States and the world. COVID killed eight of the 21 people who died in ICE custody in 2021. 

Despite the vast harms of the system detailed in the report, those in ICE detention continue to show tremendous will to fight to overcome these systems of oppression.

Read the report here.

The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) is a New York-based nonprofit that works to secure fairness and justice for immigrants in the racially-biased U.S. criminal and immigration systems. IDP fights to end the current era of unprecedented mass criminalization, detention and deportation through a multi-pronged strategy including advocacy, litigation, legal support, community partnerships, and strategic communications. Visit and follow @ImmDefense.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.