Immigrants detained by ICE are often brutalized while few Americans notice or care | Opinion

Last fall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shackled about 30 people who were detained near San Diego, forced them onto a bus and transported them without explanation to Pahrump, a remote desert town in my home state of Nevada. While most members of the public are not likely to give this seemingly routine practice a second thought, the transfer and its broader implications deserve our close attention.

What can transfers within U.S. immigration detention tell us about this system of injustice?

To begin with, the transfer itself was harrowing, and a breach of the (albeit limited) rights outlined in ICE detention standards. After being transported by bus from Otay Mesa to Nevada Southern — both facilities operated by CoreCivic, the world’s largest private prison corporation — several people spent the night in a brightly lit concrete holding cell for more than 16 hours. When the men asked for beds or, at the very least, blankets, guards entered the room in riot gear and threatened to use tear gas. An ICE agent called one man “defiant,” but, as he later recounted, he just wanted to shower and sleep.


After the transfer took place, people who were transported to Nevada Southern shared details of their experiences in calls to the Freedom for Immigrants hotline. I also had conversations with people who were part of the transfer.

On February 23, 2023, five people who were transferred, in partnership with a coalition of California and Nevada organizations, submitted a complaint outlining the transfers as retaliatory against individuals who had advocated for necessary medical care. The transfer also followed patterns outlined in a recently released national report in which people detained by ICE describe transfers as “retaliation,” “trafficking” and, according to the United Nations definition, “torture.”

One takeaway from this transfer, already well documented but which bears repeating, is that the U.S. government operates the largest immigration detention system in the world. ICE controls an annual budget of nearly $8 billion to imprison, transport, transfer and deport human beings based on the arbitrariness of their country of birth. Immigrants in detention have no right to free legal counsel, may be detained indefinitely and consistently report unsafe and even deadly conditions. Transfers are but one part of this complex system, but nevertheless an important one to follow — especially when people are targeted for speaking out.

Another lesson the transfer provides is that every day, in prisons across the country, people resist the injustice of ICE detention. On Feb. 17, just before five people stood up to ICE by submitting the complaint about their transfer from Otay Mesa, 77 people in two other California detention facilities, Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, launched a hunger strike to draw attention to the horrific conditions inside and demand the immediate release of all detained people. They, too, have faced retaliation, as outlined in a recently filed class action lawsuit. And, yet, strategies designed to retaliate cannot negate the power of human will and collective action.

Finally, on that day last fall when ICE moved people from one detention facility to another, the transfer underscored the point that making changes to the U.S. immigration detention system will never get us to a place of justice.

As an anthropologist who has studied this topic for nearly a decade, I am repeatedly startled by the violence of our nation’s detention regime. There is no way to reform brutality. Abolition is the solution, and we must follow the lead of those most impacted: people transferred to Nevada, hunger strikers in California’s Central Valley and tens of thousands of human beings who are subjected to the inhumane conditions of ICE detention each day.

Deborah A. Boehm is foundation professor of anthropology and gender, race and identity at the University of Nevada, Reno and a member of the California-Nevada coalition that filed the recent complaint. She is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow studying U.S. immigration detention. In 2019-2020, she was a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellow in residency at Freedom for Immigrants.