In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender, Violence, and Trauma in Immigration Detention in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Specialized Organizations
  • Conditions and Treatment within Immigration Detention
  • Impact of Immigration Detention on Mental Health and Well-being
  • Impact of Immigration Detention on Children
  • Detention of Immigrant Women and Survivors of Violence and Trauma
  • Detention and LGBTQ Immigrant Communities
  • Immigration Detention Visitation
  • Alternatives to Immigration Detention

Social Work Gender, Violence, and Trauma in Immigration Detention in the United States
Laurie Cook Heffron
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0290


While international law protects the rights of individuals to seek asylum and to be treated humanely and with dignity, immigration detention, the practice of confining individuals accused of violating immigration law, has surfaced as a growing response to the large numbers of individuals and families on the move throughout the world in search of freedom, safety, and economic security. Detention has long been used as a strategy for enforcement of immigration laws across the globe, and has also been used as a tactic to dissuade and control future migration. The detention of immigrants consistently presents concerns about and allegations of civil and human rights violations and negative bio-psycho-social impacts on those detained. Given the contemporary expansion of the immigration detention system in the United States, this bibliography will focus primarily on the context of immigration detention within the United States. This bibliography includes selected scholarly resources from the social sciences, health, and legal fields to present an overview of immigration detention, the impact on survivors of violence and trauma, and detention alternatives. While the Global Detention Project and other nonprofit organizations aim to track the scope of immigration detention worldwide, numbers of individuals detained, as well as the number and location of detention facilities, immigration detention remain difficult to track. In the United States, the average daily population of immigration detention facilities in the United States had increased from 6,785 in 1994 to more than 38,000 in 2017. That number has risen to closer to 50,000 in recent years and manifests across a wide variety of facilities, including temporary and long-term holding facilities operated by a host of federal, state, local, and private for-profit entities. The US government has broad, though not absolute, power over immigration and immigration detention. Authorization of the detention of immigrants dates back to 1798 with the Alien Enemies Act, which allowed for the detention of immigrants from “hostile” countries during times of war. As of 1875, another series of laws expanded the framework of detention, in particular pertaining to the incarceration of individuals with criminal convictions. Further changes were made in 1952 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, then more drastically in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which served to begin a decades-long expansion of the US immigration detention system. This expansion has also led to numerous allegations of civil and human rights violations related to due process, exploitative labor practices, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate medical care, as well as growing concern about the impact of immigration detention on survivors of violence and trauma, particularly children, women, and LGBTQ communities. The author would like to acknowledge the significant contributions of Jessenia Herzberg in researching and reviewing literature on immigration detention.

Introductory Works

Analysis and overview by the Congressional Research Service 2019 provides statutory framework that makes immigration detention possible in the United States, in addition to the historical policy backdrop that has shaped the current context. Ryo and Peacock 2018, with the American Immigration Council, offer an empirical analysis of the contemporary landscape of immigration detention in the United States, including a scan of the demographics of the detained population, locations of detention, and outcomes of detained cases. Ahmed, et al. 2017 offers multiple perspectives on how immigration detention operates and who is impacted by the system, including immigrants, nonprofit immigration attorneys, immigration judges, and family members of detained individuals. Gilman and Romero 2018 offer a comprehensive overview of immigration detention, the role of private, for-profit prison industry, and the contemporary expansion of detention, using a lens of economic inequality. With the Marshall Project, Kassie 2019 also depicts the role of private industry in the expansion of the US detention system, using compelling multimedia storytelling.

  • Ahmed, S., A. Appelbaum, and R. Jordan. 2017. The human cost of IIRIRA—Stories from individuals impacted by the immigration detention system. Journal on Migration and Human Security 5.1: 194–216 (March).

    DOI: 10.1177/233150241700500110

    This article offers five vignettes of individuals impacted by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 and its impact on the US immigration detention system. The article addresses immigration legal services in the context of detention and immigration court’s handling of cases of detained individuals.

  • Congressional Research Service. 2019. Immigration detention: A legal overview. (16 September).

    Also produced by the Congressional Research Service, this overview offers a more extended description of the statutory framework, including the Immigration and Nationality Act, that provides for, and sometimes requires, the detention of immigrants in the United States.

  • Congressional Research Service. 2019. The law of immigration detention: A brief introduction. (14 October).

    The United States Congressional Research Service provides a brief introduction to US law, and to the Immigration and Nationality Act in particular, around the detention of immigrants, and describes the statutory framework that provides authority to the US Department of Homeland Security for discretionary and mandatory detention of specific immigrants.

  • Gilman, D., and L. Romero. 2018. Immigration detention, inc. Journal on Migration and Human Security 6.2: 145–160.

    DOI: 10.1177/2331502418765414

    This article addresses the US immigration detention system through the lens of economic inequality. Gilman and Romero discuss the impact of the for-profit prison industry on the expansion of the immigration detention system and ways in which economic inequality dictates the likelihood and length of detention and setting of bond amounts in individual cases.

  • Kassie, E. 2019. Detained: How the US created the largest immigrant detention system in the world. Marshall Project (24 September).

    The nonprofit journalism project on criminal justice, the Marshall Project, presents an overview of immigration detention in this multimedia resource.

  • Ryo, E., and I. Peacock. 2018. The landscape of immigration detention in the United States. American Immigration Council.

    Based on empirical analysis of governmental data on immigration detention, the American Immigration Council presents findings related to the population of detained individuals, including their age, country of origin, and gender, as well as types of facilities used to detain them and outcomes of that detention.

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