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Undocumented Migrants and Detention Facilities

Abstract and Keywords

Being undocumented does not mean being without ties to one’s host society: undocumented immigrants might work and have family and friends; they might be active in community life, etc. However, due to a lack of formal status, they are vulnerable to detention and deportation. Instead of vilifying migrants for their irregular situation, the article sees immigration controls as a source of unjust policies and practices. Immigrant detention means administrative imprisonment without the normal due process safeguards commonly demanded in liberal democracies. Its consequences are separated families and broken individuals. Social work is seen as a profession developing ethical considerations and arguments to advocate for the right to belong to an organized political community, the right to social security, and the right to personal liberties being applicable to all people, regardless of their immigration status.

Keywords: undocumented migrants, detention, separated families, immigration control, activism, borders, social work


In one of the world’s liberal democracies, in Belgium, it happened that a five-year-old unaccompanied minor, due to her undocumented (or unauthorized) immigration status, was detained in a prison-like facility designed for adults. Another shocking case reveals that in Australia, in 2003, detention of children averaged one year and eight months and that the longest period of detention of a child, due to his unauthorized immigration status, was over five years (Wilsher, 2012: 292, 294). These cases are a result of a system of immigration control, of which detention and deportation have become normalized measures. Immigration control determines the possibilities for inclusion or rejection (detention, deportation) and exploitation. This system seems to be at odds with social work’s professional and ethical standards. Social workers seek to treat all people, regardless of their immigration status, as subjects to human and workers’ rights and liberties. Professional social work rests on sensitivity to vulnerable groups, especially children (Ferguson & Woodward, 2009; Zaviršek, 2009).

While social work tends to illuminate and reduce global injustices, immigration control is based on an unequal mobility regime and unequal access to labor and other rights (Cohen et al., 2002; Hayes & Humphries, 2004; Zorn, 2009; McKay et al., 2011). Compared to citizens of the countries of the global North, people from the global South are far more restricted and constrained in their travel and migration. Entry visas, residence and work permits are enforced in the countries of the global North. Yet people do not always abide by immigration regimes, and many work and travel illegally, without the required documents, especially in cases where their basic survival is threatened.

States argue that they detain migrants as a means of securing borders in order to protect their territorial sovereignty. Behind this seemingly nonproblematic aim immigration detention has become normalized. But for various reasons, immigration detention can be considered a highly controversial issue. First, it compromises the right to personal liberty as a fundamental human right. Second, it has harmful effects on the mental health of detainees. Third, migrants’ special needs, rights, and vulnerabilities are overridden by the single criteria, i.e., their status as authorized or unauthorized. Therefore, children are not exempt from detention. And fourth, immigration detention takes place outside the normal legal order and courts’ competence. Detainees, as unauthorized migrants, have no clear legal status under domestic or international law. Wilsher (2012: xviii) explains that “[t]his presents a legal ‘non-status’ to the extent that no formal set of principles, international or national, regulates their treatment.” They may be considered “outlaws” and this position beyond the juridical view creates their systematic vulnerability to police abuse and arbitrary executive power. Wilsher points out that the idea of the “outlaw” suggests both that the law does not provide proper safeguards against arbitrariness and that law positively legitimates harsh measures.

Besides the above listed issues that are creating a crisis for liberal principles and a crisis for the rule of law, the system of immigration detention has proven to be ineffective in the sense of gaining complete control over borders. Its seems that the real political aim of detention is to deter potential migrants and provide an opportunity to exhibit governmental endeavors to provide security for its citizens (Balibar, 2004; Rygiel, 2010; Wilsher, 2012).

Detention of migrants on a vast scale, as now occurring in the Western world, has become normalized because migration has been constructed as a security issue linked to protection from foreign criminals and potential terrorists. War-like rhetoric and the need to secure borders have often been on display across the Western world (Rygiel, 2010; Wilsher, 2012). Both perception and treatment of migrants have been connected to a state of emergency (Agamben, 1998; Wilsher, 2012). Typical for a state of emergency is restriction of rights and liberties (Agamben, 1998).

The consequences of immigration control, however, go far beyond harsh measures against people found at the borders or in detention. Étienne Balibar (2004: 113) commented that border regimes have become “essential institutions in the construction of social conditions on a global scale where the passport or identity card functions as a systematic criterion.” Here the term border is not limited to the territorial line between states. Balibar argues (2004: 2) that borders are no longer entirely situated at the outer limits of territories: “they are dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and is controlled,” for example, in cosmopolitan cities or agencies of the welfare state. Some authors even claim that a border is not primarily a place, but the process that is enacted whenever populations gain access to social services and are required to identify themselves (Rygiel, 2010: 53). Under the banner of security people are divided into those eligible and those ineligible to receive social welfare benefits, access to health care, education, protection of children and families, political rights, etc. Borders or immigration controls uphold the status quo of global inequalities; therefore, Balibar (2004) speaks of “a global apartheid” following the transformation of the old colonial and postcolonial apartheids. An example for such delineation can be seen in the fact that certain groups of people (undocumented migrants from the global South, including children) are liable to be detained and are constructed as a security issue, whereas citizens of countries that belong to the global North—not to mention their children—cannot be detained for administrative matters (if they lose their identity card, for example).

In this article, the migrants’ rights perspective will be used to arrive at an understanding of why it is unacceptable for social work to be involved in the implementation of immigration controls (Humphries, 2004). Instead of vilifying immigrants for their irregular situation, the social work approach views immigration control as the problem. This approach can be defined as political or ethical because it takes migrants’ experiences as a point of departure and considers these experiences through the lens of power relations and issues of justice (Hayter, 2000; Cohen et al., 2002; Hayes & Humphries, 2004, Zorn, 2009; Nyers & Rygiel, 2012).

The right to belong to an organized political community, the right to social security, and the right to personal liberties are viewed as applicable to all people, regardless of their immigration status. The processes through which migrants become undocumented or unauthorized and detention becomes normalized will be discussed and the human costs of detention will be examined. Human costs of detention include deterioration of (mental) health of detainees, including children, and divided families (mostly in cases where children are citizens, whereas parents are considered undocumented). The role of social work both in the detention centers and in seeking to invent inclusive strategies will be discussed.

Becoming Undocumented

Immigration controls cast people into a realm of illegality, police control, and detention or into destitution and deportation.

People can be stripped of their rights and fall outside the protection of state legislation in a number of ways. They could be rejected as asylum seekers and nevertheless stay in the host country. They could enter the territory of a given state in an illegal manner (by bypassing official border crossings, by boat, with falsified documents, etc.) They may have come to reunite with family members or friends (on a tourist visa) but then may be unable to regularize their immigration status. People become undocumented when their residence permit or work/study permit expire due to the temporary duration of their permit or due to legislative changes in the field of immigration and/or labor. It can happen that individuals begin their migration journey as documented workers and later fall into undocumented status simply because the state decided to change entry and work conditions (McKay et al., 2011: 27). People can also become undocumented through nonliberal side effects of state system transformations. For example, in 1991 when the Republic of Slovenia seceded from the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and implemented new citizenship and alien-related laws, those long-term immigrants from other parts of Yugoslavia who did not become citizens of the new state were pushed into the administrative category of undocumented migrants. They and their struggle were later given a name befitting their situation—the Erased; fully integrated into Slovene society and at the same time completely disenfranchised, they were stripped of their formal identity and all social and political rights, including the right to reside in Slovenia, labor rights, rights of the child, etc. (for the case of the Erased, see Zorn, 2011; Zorn, 2013).

Being undocumented does not mean being without ties to one’s host society: undocumented immigrants might work and have family and friends; they might be active in community life, etc. However, due to a lack of formal status, they are vulnerable to detention and deportation. A number of reports describe the trauma of divided families where one or both parents have been detained or deported. Sometimes families are unable to reunite for years, sometimes even forever (Campbell et al., 2013; Wessler et al., 2011). One of the sections of this article is devoted to the issue of separated families as a consequence of detention or deportation.

Detention I

Police detain undocumented migrants in detention centers, including whole families and even unaccompanied children. Detention is meant to be a process of the individual’s identification (if she/he lacks personal document) and deportation from the state. It needs to be emphasized that such imprisonment of migrants is taking place without the normal due process safeguards commonly demanded in liberal democracies. Daniel Wilsher (2012) researched the historical development of immigrant detention, of which the main characteristic is that it has developed beyond courts’ jurisdictions. Historically, migration policy and immigration control have taken place through the political and bureaucratic processes, not the courts (ibid.). The detention center is a space in which normal legal norms are not applicable as people are detained there without previous court proceedings and without serving a sentence. It is exempted from the law on the enforcement of criminal sanctions and the penal code, and it can actually be considered worse than prison: for the detained, it represents a considerable source of psychological stress that can ultimately compel them to participate in their own deportation (Zorn, 2009). “Detention reveals itself to be of a highly political nature,” explains Wilsher (2012: 256) as it has arisen largely outside the realm of precise moral and legal reasoning. “This politicization of detention has been expressed in arbitrary practices that cut across liberal principles of the rule of law, equality and respect for individual liberty” (ibid.). Administrative detention is run by the executive power, not courts, and this puts migrants almost beyond the reach of courts and the legal system. Despite the fact that detention is seen as an exceptional measure (by international norms and by liberal democracies as it interferes with one of the most fundamental rights in democratic states), the number of detainees, periods of detention, and detention facilities have risen substantially in recent years (ibid.: xii, xiii; Rygiel, 2010; Flynn, 2013).

The question arises: how is it possible for liberal democracies to maintain spaces that constitute an exception from the normal legal order, meaning that (arbitrary) police detention (in some states without a time limit) is not considered a violation of the right to personal freedom? Scholars interested in immigrant detention have found that this systematic deprivation of legal protection is for the most part possible because the migration question is constructed as a security issue (Wilsher, 2012; Rygiel, 2010; Flynn, 2013). Not only are undocumented migrants predominantly dealt with by the police, but also the terms criminal and migrant can easily blend together and these individuals are seen to be dangerous, as threatening and invading the host societies. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported that 82 percent of all persons removed from the interior of the country had been previously convicted of a crime, and later in the same report these cases are referred to as “criminals.” A closer look at the methodology used reveals that the notion of “criminal” includes persons convicted not only of felonies, but also of misdemeanors (except traffic violations). In the report, a “criminal offender” is “an individual convicted in the United States for one or more criminal offenses. This does not include civil traffic offenses” (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, 2013). The implication is that those who violate immigration law—undocumented workers, for example—are also seen as criminal offenders or criminals.

The Right to Have Rights

For many practitioners and academics, social work as a profession is deeply connected to human rights issues. The human rights approach is developed and supported not only by social workers and grassroots advocacy groups, but also by the international legal norms that states are obliged to follow. This means that there exists a tension between human rights (international norms) and sovereign rights (discretion of states’ decisions on who can enter their territory and how to treat non-citizens). A classic work that illuminates this tension and that marks a point of departure for many present-day scholars is The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, specifically the chapter entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.” This work was first published in the United States in 1951, which coincidentally was also the year Arendt received U.S. citizenship after eighteen years of being a stateless person (she fled the persecution as German Jews and lived in Paris and later New York).

In the above-mentioned chapter, Hannah Arendt presents a detailed analysis of the situation of undocumented persons, of human beings without citizenship or immigrant status to protect them against the arbitrariness of the police. It is not the loss of specific rights that is at stake, she wrote (p. 377) but “the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever.” In practice, human rights, which are supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were just human beings in the sense that they were not treated as citizens or foreign citizens but as undocumented or stateless persons (ibid.: 372).

The stateless person, she wrote, “without the right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law” (p. 363). As noted above, by transgressing the law, people easily become associated with criminality, and thus detention and deportation do not appear to be highly problematic measures. In the Nazi policy against Jews which she herself experienced, Arendt observed how the revocation of the right to belong and consequently expulsion came to be viewed as proof of moral unworthiness:

The official SS newspaper, the Schwarze Korps, stated explicitly in 1938 that if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers (Arendt, 2004: 343–344, emphases added).

This kind of factual propaganda, wrote Arendt (ibid.), worked better than Goebbels’s rhetoric: it truly established the Jews as the scum of the earth, and those whom the persecutor had labeled undesirable became the indésirables of Europe (ibid.). This case from the past illuminates the way designated groups of non-citizens are constructed in absolutely negative terms, as superfluous and connected to criminality. It also illuminates that the concept of human rights had no practical effect. Arendt observed that “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy” (ibid. 344).

Human rights or citizen rights?

The existence of bare (that is, undocumented) human beings and their liability to detention (without ever committing a crime) brings the tension in liberal democracies to the fore: personal liberties, which are considered the foundations of modern Western constitutions, are obviously protected only in the case of citizens and authorized immigrants and not for human beings in general. Arendt also sought to explain why this is the case. Examining the matter conceptually and historically, she pointed out the coinciding concepts of bare human being (a man) and citizen. Since the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen at the end of the eighteenth century, human rights have been invoked whenever individuals needed protection against the sovereignty of the state or the arbitrariness of society (ibid. 369). However, from the start of the modern process of the emancipation of both people and peoples, the problem has been that the individual hardly ever appeared without a reference to some larger encompassing order. Implicitly or explicitly, individuals were considered members of their own people (ibid.). In no place in the world does the “abstract” human being, residing outside the realm of a people or nationhood, seem to exist. The problem of human rights, as Hannah Arendt saw it, was that the issue of human rights was inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation: “only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one’s own people, seems to be able to ensure them” (ibid. 370). Thus it has never been clear what human rights—as distinguished from the rights of citizens—really are. It could be claimed that an undocumented migrant or an asylum seeker is truly “a person of human rights,” the first and only real appearance of these rights outside of the fiction of the citizen that always covers them over (Agamben, 1998).

Sovereignty rights vs. personal liberties.

A number of current scholars have studied issues pertaining to human rights, migration, citizenship, and similar concepts and further developed Hannah Arendt’s insights. Seyla Benhabib, for example, has pointed out that it is precisely transnational migration that exposes the constitutive dilemma that lies at the heart of liberal democracies: that between sovereign self-determination claims, on the one hand, and adherence to universal human rights principles, on the other (Benhabib, 2004: 2). Inclusionary principles of moral and political universalism are anchored in universal human rights, whereas particularistic and exclusionary conceptions are implied in democratic closure, explains Benhabib. She sees this as a problem of modern constitutional democracies:

Therefore we can see that liberalism, the belief in universal moral equality, and democracy, the belief in citizens’ equality, are necessarily incompatible (Schmitt [1923, 1985]). Yet modern constitutional democracies are based upon the faith that these two commitments can be used to limit one another, that they can be renegotiated, rearticulated, and resignified (Benhabib, 2004: 19).

Since the right to personal liberty is one of the most powerful norms of modern constitutional democracies, it is no surprise that liberal states are not comfortable locking people up outside of criminal processes (Flynn, 2013: 12). The tension between the protection of human rights and liberties, on the one hand, and the production of undocumented migrants liable to detention and deportation, on the other, seems to be irresolvable. States confront this tension so that:

  1. 1. They use human rights–related language in detention and deportation processes.

  2. 2. They manipulate statistics (see below).

  3. 3. They seek to improve detention centers and initiate other minor policy changes.

Detention II

Several highly oppressive practices, such as labor exploitation, destitution, detention, and deportations, can be identified in the treatment of undocumented immigrants. Detention will be closely examined in this section. At least three kinds of criticism are a constant in public pressure against detention.

  1. 1. The purpose of detention does not seem to be clear (not everybody gets deported after being detained), and in detention centers the right to legal advice seems to be limited and obstructed (Bail for Immigration Detainees, 2014; Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, 2014). More radical international networks, such as the No Border or No One Is Illegal, demand the complete closure of all detention centers and the cessation of all aspects of immigration control, and they advocate for the right to stay for all (No Border Network, 2014; Forschungsgesellschaft Flucht und Migration, 2013; Anderson et al., 2012; Hayer, 2000). Viewed from their perspective, the demand for improved living conditions and more humane treatment at detention centers is illogical. They claim that immigration control is essentially unjust in that, however much the system may be “fixed,” there will always be someone whose right to movement is restricted and who will thus be in an unequal position. Their point of departure is anticapitalist, as they view the existing political-economic order as the cause of global inequality and local exclusion, including detention (ibid.).

  2. 2. The detention of children and the separation of families due to detention or deportation should be stopped. The detention of children goes against human rights norms and conventions and is profoundly damaging to children’s physical, developmental, emotional, and psychological health. Regardless of their status, children are first and foremost children (International Detention Coalition, 2012; Campbell et al., 2013; Wessler et al., 2011; End Immigration Detention of Children, 2014).

  3. 3. A great deal of research has indicated that immigration detention is a business rather than an exceptional measure and last resort. Private companies make profits by detaining people (as governments reimburse expenses by day and by detainee). It is no surprise that these companies are persistent lobbyists in the arena of detention policy. The Global Detention Project research initiative (based at the Graduate Institute’s Global Migration Centre in Geneva, 2014a) found that in the United Kingdom the cost of detention is on average £130 per day per detainee, compared to an estimated cost of £150 per week to support an asylum seeker in the community. Detention Watch Network (2014) reported that the annual cost of detaining people in the United States is more than $1.7 billion, and the New York-based Applied Research Centre gives an even higher number: on average, 33,400 people are detained each day, at a cost of $122 per day per detainee; in other words, approximately $2 billion is spent annually on immigration detention (Wessler et al., 2011: 12).

The Global Detention Project (2014a) has pointed out that despite reforms (disavowal of child detention, increased transparency in immigration processes), the number of suicides among detainees has risen, the detention of children continues (often in thinly disguised prison facilities), and the number of high-profile protests by detainees and their supporters has increased.

Statistical ambiguity.

Owing to the number of detention centers in different countries, the number of detained persons, including children, the number of deportations and the costs of detention, sometimes a range of conflicting information is available for a single country. This statistical ambiguity is not a coincidence as governments are seeking to de-link detention from incarceration despite the natural affiliation between the two (Flynn, 2013: 8). Due to their discomfort about depriving non-citizens of their liberty through administrative means, states are attempting to conceal detention or at least to present it in less brutal terms and downplay its extent. The identity of detention centers might be “hidden” under a variety of names, such as “guesthouses” in Turkey, “migratory stations for the temporary housing of migrants” (estaciones migratorias, alojamiento temporal) in Mexico, “welcome centers” (centri di accoglienza) in Italy, and “centers of administrative retention” (centres de rétention administrative) in France (ibid.).

Flynn (2013) observed that when states digest the bitter pill of human rights, the result is a manipulation of key terms and statistical data and/or modest improvements in oppressive practices. Governments and human rights watchers can, for example, have different understandings of what counts as detention, making it difficult to find reliable statistics on detention facilities and the number of detained persons, especially children. In these cases, one can clearly detect the desire of governments to downplay the extent of detention: according to the webpage of the Detention Watch Network (a coalition of organizations working to expose and challenge the injustices of immigrant detention in the United States, 2014) there are 250 different detention sites in the United States; the U.S. government gives a significantly lower figure, with the facility locator on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2014) webpage listing a total of 118 detention facilities.

According to data gathered by the Global Detention Project (2014b), the United States maintains the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world. In 2012, approximately 400,000 people were detained (Detention Watch Network, 2014). Official statistics show that in 2013, the Department of Homeland Security conducted a total of 368,644 removals: 133,551 people were removed from the interior of the United State and over 235,000 individuals were removed along the U.S. borders while attempting to unlawfully enter the country. Estimates indicate that approximately 11.6 million undocumented persons are currently living in the United States (Global Detention Project, 2014b; Batalova & Lee, 2012).

In Australia, there are nine prison-like detention centers and several other immigration facilities. According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2013), as of October 31, 2013, there were 3,587 people in immigration detention facilities. A total of 492 people were in similar settings (immigration residential housing and transit accommodation), including 114 children. The governmental report also accounts for 3,290 people in community accommodation, including 1,770 children. This same report has been cited by the Australian Human Rights Commission (2014a, 2014b), which arrived at significantly higher figures: 6,401 people in immigration detention facilities and 3,290 people in community detention as of October 31, 2013. This includes 1,045 children in immigration detention facilities and 1,770 children in community detention. Clearly the number of children in detention differs from source to source. Given the ongoing resistance against detention both from within and from without the walls of detention facilities, it is not surprising that governments would want to provide a different interpretation of what counts as detention, and, as a result, different figures for the same period of time can be found.

Besides the long periods and prison-like facilities in which migrants are detained, Australia is also notorious for its quasi-legal solutions for preventing migrants and asylum seekers from claiming rights within Australia’s jurisdiction (Global Detention Project, 2014c).

According to estimates from the Global Detention Project (2014a), there are 15 detention infrastructure facilities in the United Kingdom: eleven long-term facilities, called Immigration Removal Centres, three short-term detention facilities that can be used to hold people for up to seven days, and one semi-secure “pre-departure” facility for families. From 2009 to the end of 2012, between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants were being detained at any given time (Silverman & Hajela, 2013). Around 29,000 persons entered detention in 2012, compared to approximately 27,000 persons in 2011 and 26,000 persons in 2010 (ibid.). More than half of all detainees were confined in long-term immigration removal centers. Roughly half of all detainees were people who had claimed asylum at some point in their immigration status proceedings (Global Detention Project, 2014a). In 2010, 16,565 people were removed from the country after being detained (roughly 40 percent were asylum seekers).

In the case of the United Kingdom, the largest share of criticism has been aimed at indefinite detention periods, the detention of children and the privatization of detention facilities. In late 2010, the U.K. government announced that it was ending the controversial practice of detaining minors (Global Detention Project, 2014a). More than 1,000 children were detained for the purpose of immigration control in 2009, and this number fell to about 400 in 2010. Over 100 children officially entered immigration detention in 2011 (Silverman & Hajela, 2013) and around 240 in 2012 (ibid.)

Shattered families.

Several investigations have provided detailed insight into the harmful consequence both detention and family separation have on individuals and on children in particular. Below, four investigations are summarized—two deal with separated families and two with the deleteriousness of detention.

Estimates state that there are approximately 5.5 million children in the United States with an undocumented parent, and that about 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens (Wessler et al., 2011: 10). Around 400,000 undocumented immigrants are removed annually from the United States and many among these individuals are parents. In the first six months of 2011, the year the research was conducted, the federal government removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of children who are U.S. citizens and most of their children were left behind (ibid. 5). A comprehensive study conducted by the Applied Research Centre (Wessler et al., 2011) is the first nationwide investigation into the intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. It explores the consequences for families in the cases where parents are detained or deported. Often it happens that children are placed into custody outside their communities: if relatives or friends of the detained parents are also undocumented immigrants they are viewed as inappropriate caregivers by the child welfare system. This means that children do not stay in familiar surroundings, within their own communities. The report shows that children in foster care are often prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parent(s). Due to detention, parents are denied the possibility of participating in juvenile justice court reunification plans. Immigration enforcement obstructs the juvenile justice system and violates families’ rights to remain together (ibid. 43). It has been noted that caseworkers and juvenile justice attorneys lack knowledge of immigration laws, which might be seen as an obstacle when seeking to reunite these families (ibid. 5). The Applied Research Centre’s investigation combined quantitative and qualitative data: approximately 200 interviews were conducted with detained parents, individual caseworkers and supervisors, dependency attorneys, immigration attorneys and advocates, dependency judges, and foreign consulates; thirty-five focus groups were conducted in twenty-three counties in six states. The participants were child welfare caseworkers or attorneys who represent parents or children in juvenile dependency court (ibid. 59).

Claims of family-oriented value systems and a child welfare policy ostensibly aimed at reuniting families whenever possible are not borne out by actual practices. The report shows that in areas where the local police aggressively participate in immigration enforcement, the children of non-citizens are more likely to be separated from their parents and face barriers to reunification. When mothers and fathers are detained and deported and children are relegated to foster care, family separation can last for extended periods. In many cases, children lose the opportunity to ever see their parents again when parental rights are terminated by a juvenile dependency court (ibid. 5). The researchers’ in-depth investigation covered not only the area where the immigration enforcement system and the child protection system clearly overlap, but also these systems for themselves. They pointed out that the child protective system uses the category of neglect as a reason to place a child into custody, whereby the term neglect is a broad category, subject to interpretation and discretionary judgments by the numerous actors involved (ibid. 16). Neglect as a reason for placing a child in protective custody may be misleading, as neglect can be practically indiscernible from the effects of poverty: if a parent is too poor to feed, clothe, or house his or her child, he or she may be deemed neglectful (ibid.) Families with undocumented parent(s) are more likely to be poor and, due to their lack of immigration status, are often unable to access services otherwise available for poor families. The possibility that social services will define these parents as neglectful is therefore higher than in the case of parents-citizens.

Another critical area is domestic violence. Undocumented victims of domestic violence reported that their choice is either to remain with a violent partner or to call the police for protection and thus risk detention and deportation from the state and separation from the children.

The report shows that undocumented parents do not receive the support they need. Since social workers lack knowledge of the perspective of migrants, their interventions often fail to benefit the children involved.

A U.K.-based research entitled “Fractured Childhoods: The Separation of Families by Immigration Detention” (Campbell et al., 2013) used similar methodology and research questions and arrived at similar conclusions. In this report the voices of children and their feelings are put in focus.

“Fractured Childhoods” was carried out on 111 parents who were separated from 200 children by immigration detention between 2009 and 2012. A total of eighty-five of these children were in foster care arrangements or local authority care during their parents’ detention. Parents were detained without a time limit, for an average of 270 days. In 92 of the 111 cases, the parents were eventually released, their detention having served no purpose. In fifteen cases, parents were deported or removed from the United Kingdom without their children (ibid.: 7).

Children who participated in this research described the extreme distress they experienced during their parents’ detention (ibid.: 8). They reported losing weight, having nightmares, suffering from insomnia, crying frequently, and becoming deeply unhappy, socially isolated, and withdrawn. Some children were aware that their parent could be deported, and they were extremely anxious about this (ibid.). A parent’s absence often meant that the child’s basic practical and emotional needs were not met. In cases where single parents were detained, children were placed in care. The report pointed out that some were shuffled between unstable care arrangements, experienced neglect, and placed at risk of serious harm. Children were seldom able to visit their parents in detention because of the distances involved and the prohibitive cost of travel, and parents struggled to pay for phone calls to their children (ibid.).

Whereas the investigations described above focused on the child/parent perspective in the case of separated families, the focus in the research below is on the perspective of the detainees.

The human costs of detention.

The Jesuit Refugee Service Europe (2010) extensive report “Becoming Vulnerable in Detention,” which is based on interviews with 685 detained persons (asylum seekers and undocumented migrants) in twenty-one member states of the European Union, shows that detention results in depression, anxiety, weight loss, insomnia, isolation from loved ones, and disruption of life plans. The study clearly shows that migrant detention harms all persons who experience it. In many parameters detention resembles punishment rather than administrative procedure. It should be emphasized that in most countries, detention is not limited to adults; rather, whole families are also detained, including infants and unaccompanied minors. The adult environment of detention puts minors at a double disadvantage, especially if they are unaccompanied, because they are more vulnerable to the behavior of the staff and to the prison-like atmosphere.

Similar research was conducted by the International Detention Coalition (2012), with the important difference that it focused on children who experienced detention. The Coalition consists of over 250 nongovernmental organizations and individuals working in more than fifty countries to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in immigration detention around the world. In their survey, entitled “Captured Childhood,” seventy children and sixteen parents in twelve countries were interviewed (Malta, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, the United States, El Salvador, Mexico, Israel, Egypt, Malaysia, and Australia). The researchers argue that the detention of children should be completely withdrawn and replaced with child-sensitive community assessment and placement models. Some children are detained with their parents, while others are detained by themselves. The researchers pointed out that the detention of children “has profound and far-reaching implications for their development and physical and psychological health” (ibid. 55). Detention can both exacerbate existing physical and mental health problems (post-traumatic stress syndrome, for example) and create new ones, such as chronic anxiety, depression, and suicide (ibid. 57). It is important to stress that the harmful effects that develop during detention do not disappear once the child is freed (ibid.). This means

that children who are held in detention for extended periods, at least, are likely to experience the implications of their detention beyond the walls and wire of the detention environment. This has consequences not only for the individual children but also for the communities in which they will live their lives. This is the case regardless of whether they are returned to their countries of origin, deported to a third country or are resettled in the country in which they were detained (ibid.).

Similarly, the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe (2010: 13) wrote that in the case of nearly every one of the 685 persons interviewed, detention has a distinctively deteriorative effect upon the individual:

The vast majority of detainees describe a scenario in which the environment of detention weakens their personal condition. The prison-like environments existing in many detention centres, the isolation from the “outside world,” the unreliable flow of information and the disruption of a life plan lead to mental health impacts such as depression, self-uncertainty and psychological stress, as well as physical health impacts such as decreased appetite and varying degrees of insomnia. The manner in how detainees see themselves is significantly impacted by detention. In this context, self-perception becomes an important indicator of the effects of detention because as an administrative measure, it should not bring such detrimental personal consequences.

Initially most of interviewed detainees perceived themselves in a positive way, as “hard workers,” “strong people,” etc. However, despite their initial strength and readiness to make it through detention, the negative effects of prolonged detention influenced their self-perception in a negative way. Even in detention centers where the living conditions were found to be good, the mere imposition of detention and the restriction of liberty that it entails left people completely broken (ibid.)

The report describes several aspects of detention: access to relevant information, space, rules and activities within detention centers, detainees’ feelings of safety and physical and mental health, access to health care and communication with the “outside world.” The main concept the report builds on is vulnerability, and from that concept implications for EU policymaking are drawn. Excerpts from the interviews send a strong message to citizens of the Western world, who normally see their own societies as liberal democracies characterized by multiculturalism and respect of human rights.

Social work in detention centers?

An understanding of detention centers as “continuums of anxiety,” disempowerment, and oppression makes social work in detention centers a rather Utopian project. In liberal democracies, people are being detained without having been convicted (their detention is merely an administrative measure), and social workers are only authorized to help with the temporary enrolment of children in schools, see to the fulfilment of the most basic existential needs and provide emotional support for the detainees (Zorn, 2009). The detention center is an environment in which the question arises of whether social workers’ involvement is in line with the values and principles of the profession. Pauline J. McLoughlin (2006: 146), for example, asks if it is possible, “or even beneficial, to promote mental health in what might be thought of as an inherently ‘unhealthy’ setting.” Zachary Steel et al. (2004) stresses that mental health practitioners in detention centers are caught in a highly charged political environment regardless of their personal views on the matter. Therefore it is not inappropriate to question the purpose of providing services in such a disempowering environment of distress and trauma. Steel et al. (2004) wonder whether professional psychological “treatment” in such a context amounts to collusion with an oppressive system or whether it can be seen as an appropriate provision to support. Having observed one social worker in a detention center in Slovenia, offering services there can be defined as assisting in the “humane implementation of inhumane practices” since emotional support implied helping these individuals accept their fate, that is, deportation from the country (Zorn, 2009).

Following these arguments, one must then ask if detention centers, as a source of distress and disempowerment, would be a better place without social workers or psychologists. It seems that this is a false dilemma. Instead of trying to find an answer, the focus should be on various forms of subversion of the repressive system. Such an approach would make relevant an understanding of empowerment as a multilevel concept affecting not only individuals, but also communities and even society at large (Zaviršek, 2009; Ferguson & Woodward, 2009). It can be assumed that emancipated communities that understand the sociopolitical context from the immigrant perspective are more prepared to promote and facilitate inclusive practices and regularization from below.

Regularization from Below

To summarize: the right to belong is decisive in claiming most of the rights inherent to human beings; it is integral both to leading a dignified life and to basic survival. Obstacles to migrant inclusion were identified using two concepts: first, as immigration control, where borders (immigration statuses) are “inscribed” in individuals’ bodies, and, second, as the implicit coincidence of human and citizenship rights. These obstacles stem from the fact that the state has a monopoly on defining its membership. The question therefore is: is it possible to transform this aspect of the nation-state that obstructs the right to belong and denies the right to have rights, and if so, how?

In opposition to the illegalization processes conducted by states, immigrants and activists are attempting to organize “regularization from below” in the cities where they live and work (Forschungsgesellschaft Flucht und Migration, 2013; Anderson et al., 2012). For example, some fifty cities in the United States have passed resolutions and legislation forbidding the use of municipal resources and employees for the enforcement of federal immigration laws. This means that those public services that fall under the jurisdiction of cities and towns (and not federal jurisdiction) are accessible to all people, regardless of their formal status in the United States. Some cities have even labelled themselves “safe cities” and “shelters” (McDonald, 2012). A similar situation can be noted in Canada. For example, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell campaign was launched by the Toronto-based No One Is Illegal group. On the municipal level, they demand that all residents of Toronto have equal access to all public services (education, health care, public housing, food, social services, etc.) without fear of detention or deportation. They further demand that social workers and others do not inquire into people’s status (whether or not they have citizenship, a residence permit, etc.), and that, if they happen to learn of a person’s status, they do not report it to the police. They call on Toronto municipal authorities to provide funding for accessible and quality public services instead of enforcing federal immigration laws (No One Is Illegal Toronto, 2014; McDonald, 2012). Of course, these changes to municipal policy were not instantly granted, but they came about as the result of persistent research, networking, advocacy, and political activities by immigrants and refugees and their allies.

A similar logic is being applied in campaigns for the rights of undocumented workers. These campaigns do not focus solely on obtaining legal statuses; rather they also seek to improve working conditions for all workers, regardless of whether or not they have a work or residence permit. The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (2005) has been active in the dissemination of information to workers and in their empowerment and networking efforts; at the same time, it demands of employers that they ensure minimum standards also for undocumented workers.

Through these approaches, citizenship and residence permits for aliens are no longer seen as an essential precondition for enjoying rights. Persistent advocacy groups have begun developing models for the inclusion of people that are not based on the nation-state as the sole entity that decides on membership, belonging, and rights, but that, instead, call for changes on the level of municipal services and on the level of employers.


Immigration control both defines criteria for who may and may not enter a state and the conditions under which they may stay. Immigration controls not only curtail the free movement of people, but also define the formal basis of life in the host country. An approach that takes immigration controls or mobility regimes as a point of departure for understanding migrants’ experience is closely connected to social work because social workers seek to understand and act upon structures responsible for (migrant) disempowerment. Social workers consider all people, regardless of their status (as citizens, immigrants with permission to stay/work, or undocumented people), as persons with equal dignity and subjects of human rights (Zaviršek, 2009; Ferguson and Woodward, 2009; Hayes & Humphries, 2004; Cohen et al., 2002). Contrary to the values and ethics of social work, immigration control categorizes people and determines their access to rights: the level of protection of human rights a given person enjoys, including workers’ rights, family integrity, rights of the child, etc., depends on the category in which the immigrant has been placed in (Cohen et al., 2002; Hayes & Humphries, 2004; Humphries, 2004; Zorn, 2009). Undocumented immigrants, including children, are liable to detention and this article discussed not only how such a measure is possible in the countries considered to liberal democracies, but also the human consequences of such imprisonment. Countries of the Western world, however, not only practice detention and deportation of immigrants on a vast scale, but also contain high-profile migrant advocacy networks claiming the right to belong and the right to stay. In the cases where advocacy groups collaborate with municipality agencies they are making steps toward transgressing the exclusion and transformations of models of belonging.

Social work tasks are multiple: (1) making steps to end practices of detention and deportation and to negotiate the right to stay for individuals and families; (2) engage with and support undocumented migrants and their families living in the communities; (3) learn from undocumented parents and children in order to keep families together or, in the case of domestic violence, to take appropriate action (instead of detention and deportation of the vulnerable partner).

To conclude, it can be said when social workers and (undocumented) immigrants unite in a joint struggle for rights, their feelings of power, self-respect, and belonging grow. In social work literature, such transformations are defined as a process of empowerment (Zaviršek, 2009). In political philosophy, the entry into the public space of those who are not supposed to have a voice is called politics, and the process through which this entry is achieved is called political subjectivization (Rancière, 2004). Whichever aspect—empowerment, political subjectivization, or emancipation—one chooses to stress, the important thing is that people become capable of viewing their experiences of exclusion as the result of structural effects and not their own mistakes (Ferguson & Woodward, 2009). Although they are not responsible for the injustices they have suffered, they can self-identify as responsible for taking part in the struggle for a more just society.


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                                                            Further Reading

                                                            Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. (2004). A last resort? National inquiry into children in immigration detention. Retrieved from http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/last-resort-national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention. Accessed January 15, 2014.