The Healthcare Crisis In ICE Detention Facilities

By Josette Barrans |

What Can You Do?

Since President Trump took office in 2016 at least 24 people, including five children[1], have died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities. These detention facilities are where immigrants are held after attempts to unlawfully enter the country, if they have requested asylum, and when they are in the process of being deported[2]. These facilities are not just in border towns, there are hundreds of them across the entire country. Trump has made his anti-immigration sentiment extremely clear since the onset of his campaign, which rallied around the need for a physical wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

While his plan for a border wall never came to fruition, Trump’s aggressive use of ICE to track down, detain, and deport immigrants has had a huge impact on the country. Trump’s framing of immigrants as criminals and monsters, coupled with the executive orders he has passed that have increased the amount of detention facilities and detained individuals, has allowed migrants to be treated inhumanely and detained in awful conditions for great lengths of time. As a result, there is a clear healthcare crisis in ICE migrant detention facilities across the U.S.

When Vice President Mike Pence visited a Texas detention facility this past July, the nation’s second-in-command praised the ICE agents and their procedures. Yet, the gruesome reality of this visit was seen through the lens of video footage taken by a reporter that uncovered detained migrants simultaneously yelling that they did not have access to showers[3]. Even more startling, it appears the extent of this issue isn’t solely limited to this one detention facility. At another Texas ICE camp, child detainees had “not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility” and “have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap”[4]. Nearly all of the facilities are overcrowded, leading people to sleep in piles on the floor. These types of conditions are inhumane and lead to the facilities becoming hotbeds of disease.

In 2017, a US District judge found the ICE detention facilities violated the 1997 Flores agreement, which states that “immigrant children cannot be held for more than 20 days and must be provided with food, water, emergency medical care and toilets”[5]. In June of this year, a lawyer for the Trump administration argued that the government was in compliance with the Flores agreement “because it did not specifically list items such as soap or toothbrushes”[6]. By their logic, the definition of “safe and sanitary conditions” did not necessarily mean having the ability to clean yourself. Without even basic sanitary conditions, migrants with serious illnesses and pre-existing conditions face a very slim chance of ever receiving access to the medications they need while detained.

While detainee physical health is already a profound issue, there is a whole other side to this story: mental health. According to a Politico report, there are between 3,000 and 6,000 detainees who suffer from mental illnesses living in these facilities[7]. Typically, such a large-scale issue regarding human life would render a noticeable governmental response. Yet, an agency oversight report from 2016 concluded that “only 21 of the 230 ICE detention facilities offer any kind of in-person mental health services from the agency’s medical staff”[8]. This is a clear sign that the mental health of detainees is far from a priority in this administration.

While many migrants come into these facilities with prior mental health issues, the conditions inside will likely only enhance their distressing symptoms. Being trapped in an overcrowded cell is detrimental to anyone’s well-being, and this feeling can be even more catastrophic for people with schizophrenia or other serious conditions. A deteriorating mental state can lead to an inability to contribute to one’s legal proceedings and increase the likelihood of a negative outcome in their case[9]. The conditions in ICE facilities have even driven some detainees to tragic lengths. In one California detention center, federal investigators found that “detainees had made nooses from bed sheets in 15 of 20 cells in the facility they visited”[10].

A major obstacle in combating these conditions is the centers are often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. The poor conditions were only exposed in the media through investigative reports and when big-name politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, went to visit these ICE facilities. It is in the interest of the government to keep these facilities private in order to avoid public scrutiny, so it’s essential to maintain a spotlight on this issue in the American media to reveal the truth.

Since ICE contracts most of its detention facilities to state and local governments, this issue can be fought on the battlegrounds of local jurisdiction. Some localities across the country are choosing to cut ties with ICE and close local facilities, while some states are “passing bills to push back against immigrant detention statewide”[11]. This method of fighting ICE has a lot of potential, because it will be much harder to maintain so many facilities if the burden is not shared with state governments. States must take a larger role in overseeing these facilities, investigating claims of poor conditions and wrongdoings, and disseminating this information to stakeholders.

Furthermore, by identifying ICE detention facilities in your area, you can personally conduct research on what information is available about these facilities and their conditions through organizations like the National Immigrant Justice Center. You can even request a detention facility tour through ICE’s stakeholder access policy to investigate the conditions of a facility in your area. Then, you can lobby local representatives to shut down these institutions. This healthcare crisis is happening behind closed doors all around us, and we must take action to give detainees the physical and mental health care they deserve.

  • [1] McKenzie, Katherine C., and Homer Venters. “Policymakers, Provide Adequate Health Care in Prisons and Detention Centers.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 July 2019,
  • [2] “Immigration Detention in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2019,
  • [3] Reinicke, Carmen. “Video Shows Migrant Men Detained in an Overcrowded Texas Facility Yelling ‘No Shower’ as Pence Praised Agents.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 13 July 2019,
  • [4] Dickerson, Caitlin. “’There Is a Stench’: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 June 2019,
  • [5] “Are US Child Migrant Detainees Entitled to Soap and Beds?” BBC News, BBC, 20 June 2019,
  • [6] “Are US Child Migrant Detainees Entitled to Soap and Beds?”
  • [7] Rayasam, Renuka. “Migrant Mental Health Crisis Spirals in ICE Detention Facilities.” POLITICO, 21 July 2019,
  • [8] Rayasam.
  • [9] Rayasam.
  • [10] Rayasam.
  • [11] Adams, Lora. “State and Local Governments Opt Out of Immigrant Detention.” Center for American Progress, 25 July 2019,