Post by Lauren Martin, Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Geography, University of Oulu. Lauren is working on a project called 'Privatizing Border Enforcement in the European Union and United States' and is a member of the RELATE (Relational and Territorial Politics of Bordering, Identities, and Transnationalization) Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence. 

At sunset, 'correctional facility' appears underneath 'residential facility' Photo: Peter Dana
In March of 2001, US immigration officials began detaining noncitizen families at the Berks County Family Care Shelter near Reading, Pennsylvania. A former nursing home for elderly people, the center contained 84 beds and received relatively little attention. In May of 2006, US immigration officials re-opened the T. Don Hutto Correctional Facility as the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, with little alteration to its medium-security interior design and daily procedures. In September of 2009, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released families from Hutto. How and why did families become detainable? And how and why did ICE roll back its family detention program in context of rising deportation rates?
T. Don Hutto Residential Center Photo: Jana Birchum | Source: Austin Chronicle
Touted in hunting terminology as a shift from “catch and release” to “catch and return,” Hutto was one of many hastily opened detention centers that followed the expansion of Expedited Removal and the implementation of the Secure Border Initiative along the US-Mexico boundary. These policies enabled immigration officers to order deportation without immigration court review for noncitizens apprehended with 100 miles of the border and 14 days of border crossing. This policy shift created, in short, new populations of detainable people, a sharp increase in the detention population, and a rapid expansion of the detention system into a chaotic and poorly monitored imprisonment system.

Part of a long-standing “prevention through deterrence” policy, expanding ER and mandatory detention sought not only to stem migration along the US-Mexico border, but to shift migrant’s cost-benefit calculations of migration’s risks. Detention as deterrence has been globally criticized as ineffective (see this blog’s recent posts on Malta here and here), revealing state immigration official’s fundamental misunderstanding of why people migrate. And yet, it continues to be a common rationale for state immigration agencies to house migrants in inadequate conditions. In a recent article in Geopolitics, I analyzed detention-as-deterrence to argue that while contemporary incarceration does not seek to rehabilitate inmates or detainees, detention policy does produce particular kinds of migrant subjects.

Two children wave from Hutto's playground behind the fence Photo: Ben Wheeler
Families, though, created problems for ICE’s ambitious border-closure project. When lawyers and advocates began visiting families at Hutto in 2006, they found children in prison scrubs, highly regimented eating schedules, inadequate medical care, and wholly inappropriate disciplinary procedures—in short, no significant alteration to the medium-security operations in place prior to the introduction of families. On the basis of children’s special vulnerability, a 1997 legal settlement, Flores v. Meese, stipulated immigration officials’ treatment of minors, entitling children to a range of social, legal, and health services unavailable to adults in immigration custody. Hutto violated virtually every provision.

ICE, however, argued that because the children were accompanied by their parents, Flores did not apply to them. Their parents, they argued, provided them the care they needed, and ICE was simply detaining accompanied adults. In a lawsuit against ICE’s detention practices at Hutto, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic argued that Flores applied to all minors in immigration custody. In the end, the judge agreed that Hutto’s conditions were wholly inadequate, but refused to order families’ release, citing a long precedent of federal judicial deference to executive and legislative power over immigration law. The settlement was in place from 2007-2009, and created compliance measures to track ICE’s efforts to bring Hutto to Flores standards. In the end, the agency did not do so, and perhaps sensing another lawsuit, ICE release families from Hutto in 2009.

Image from The Least of These Source: IndiePix Unlimited
What the lawsuit showed, however, was a complicated legal splicing of who and where legal protections may apply to noncitizens in US immigration custody. What constitutes a family, a “home-like space,” a child, and a parent bore directly on families’ access to various legal options under Flores, the asylum system, and bond and parole hearings. For advocates, codifying “home-like” spaces, and the care and nurturing that happens within them, as fundamentally non-penal became an important part of their challenge to family detention policy. ICE, for its part, commissioned plans and proposals for new family residential facilities, but each model demonstrated their overarching concern for security, enclosure, and order over services and programming used by other public residential facilities. While often overlooked in both border and governmentality studies, this research shows that immigration geopolitics is very much  “governed through the family.”

Moreover, the politics surrounding family detention showed how geographical imaginings of safe and secure US territory, vague external threats, and dangerous external territory provided legal justification for ICE’s detention practices. More insidiously, asylum-seekers’ narratives of persecution and physical harm were taken as evidence of a dangerous external world, and further reason to shore up border and immigration protection. This mobilized what I call a geopolitics of vulnerability, in which immigration enforcement—and the federal court’s affirmation of it—externalizes vulnerabilities in order to create a secure US territory. Whether these vulnerabilities include asylum-seekers’ and children’s vulnerability to harm or geopolitical vulnerability seems not to matter. In the US post-9/11 context, any and all threats are understood in the same register, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to roll immigration—which includes asylum—up with counter-terrorism, smuggling, and drug trafficking. Thus, the micro- and macro-geographies of detention and immigration law are intimately connected, as families’ bodily relationships were enrolled in a broader geopolitical project.

Building on this, I just began a project comparing the role of private security firms in immigration and border enforcement. My articles on family detention and other US security-related matters can be found here.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Martin L (2013) The Politics of Detaining Families. Available at: (Accessed [date]).