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How Immigration Detention Became a Government Headache

Duke graduate's research traces detention from local jails to private operations

Briana Nofil T'12 and history professor Gunther Peck discuss the history of immigrant detention.
Brianna Nofil T'12 and history professor Gunther Peck discuss the history of immigrant detention.

Long before deportable immigrants were held in detention centers or lucrative privately run prisons in the United States, local jails were the holding cells of choice for the federal government.

“As early as 1900 towns made money off detaining immigrants ... way before private prison companies,” said Brianna Nofil ‘T12, now a doctoral candidate in U.S. History at Columbia University. “(Local governments) started viewing undocumented immigrants as a commodity … a way to access federal money.”

Nofil and Duke history professor Gunther Peck discussed the history of incarcerating immigrants last week during a Forum for Scholars and Publics event.

Her research includes examining policies behind incarcerating Chinese immigrants who crossed the U.S.-Canadian border into New York in the early 20th century. Their ultimate goal was to become U.S. citizens, so a few to several months in a local jail was viewed as worth the sacrifice, Nofil said. The federal government paid county sheriffs a nightly rate for each immigrant held in local jails.

“(Federal) contracts were seen as such a net positive locals build separate ‘Chinese’ jails to hold immigrants. There were ferociously contested local battles over access to Chinese migrants,” she said.

Soon the local jails were also housing immigrants from Europe, too.

But the practice also drew opposition from locals who didn’t approve of the federal government using their facilities for people not accused of a crime, she said.

“It never felt totally natural to people,” Nofil said. “There’s always been … real ethical and religious questions about what this means.”

That concern grew after the U.S. in 1929 made it a misdemeanor to cross the border without papers. Stories of children – including toddlers – mixed with dangerous criminals in local jails drew public outcry, she said.

This led to the creation of federal jails to hold immigrant detainees. Then, midway through the 20th century, supervisory parole became the norm, requiring routine check-ins with immigration officers in lieu of jail, she said.

That practice changed in 1980, when more than 120,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s regime and arrived in Florida, along with some 25,000 Haitian asylum-seekers that same year.

“As policymakers fretted over mass migration from the Caribbean, they began to radically rethink immigration detention; a system that had long relied on a constellation of jails, warehouses and office buildings began to establish permanent detention sites,” Nofil wrote on a June 28, 2018, op-ed on

In response, a Regan policy in 1981 mandated detention for any migrants without a sufficient reason to be in the U.S., which the administration hoped would deter would-be refugees.

“This mandate triggered the incarceration of nearly all asylum-seeking Haitians and the construction of the first federal immigration detention centers, but it had minimal effect in dissuading migrants and refugees, she wrote. “So the U.S. began experimenting with new tactics, including intercepting boats at sea and sending asylum seekers back to their homeland or to a camp at Guantanamo Bay.”

Nofil added in the TIME piece that what to do with children became an epic problem for U.S. immigration authorities. “Kids withered in bureaucratic limbo,” she said, including at a disastrous camp in Guantanamo where immigrant children were kept.

“Over the last century, as ICE and its predecessors have made incarceration the de facto response to border crossing, the result has been a system that has routinely imprisoned children while simultaneously painting these detentions as an aberration,” she wrote.

Nofil added in the column that these events of the past led directly to the difficulty now facing the Trump administration – how to properly respond to the massive influx of migrant children on the Southern U.S. border.

“The (events on the Southern border) realize the fears that immigrant advocates articulated when they found an imprisoned 8-year-old in 1978: When adults debate immigration law enforcement, children are often an afterthought — until they can no longer be ignored.”