Privatization of Immigrant Detention in the United States and Germany

Migration has become a hot-button issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Immigration without proper documentation in the United States and the deportation of those denied asylum in Germany have led to the detention of numerous individuals. To cope with the increasing volume, prison systems have resorted to partially, and in the U.S., fully, private detention centers. Concerns about quality and the lack of oversight make the practice controversial. Further, many detentions occur without convictions, casting doubt on the ability of private facilities to protect detainees’ rights.

The question has developed a political strain as well. Officials look to these so-called private actors to streamline governmental efficiency. In several cases, campaign contributions have been connected to the corporations which operate the detention centers.

Key takeaways:

  • Nearly 19,000 immigrants are held without conviction in the United States.
  • Many of these are held in completely privatized detention centers.
  • For those suspected of immigration offenses, the average detention lasts thirty days, but this can stretch into months for more complicated cases.
  • While privately operated prisons have been in use in the United States for some time, private actors play a much smaller role in Germany, where public opinion is against their expansion.
  • The German legal system makes complete privatization of prisons impossible, but the sudden spike in refugees has led to privatization of certain services.
  • The claimed advantages of privatization—reduced costs and greater efficiency—have been called into question by recent studies.
  • Also problematic is the incentivization of private actors to keep up income by maintaining high prison populations.
  • For most inmates, whose only offense is an immigration violation, incarceration is a needlessly costly solution. Some areas in Germany, for example, have introduced ankle bracelets, which allow for surveillance, but do not drastically impede daily life.

Sabrina Axster is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in May and June 2017. She is currently a doctoral student in Global Affairs at Rutgers University and will be transferring to join the Political Science Department at Johns Hopkins University in September 2017. Prior to joining Rutgers University, Ms. Axster was a research consultant at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs where she was directly involved in the substantive and intergovernmental preparations for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She holds an MSc in International Development Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

June 27, 2017