Why is an African Grandmother in Immigration Detention?

I tried to focus on the young woman I was visiting at the Elizabeth Detention Center.  But my attention kept being drawn to the West African grandmother surrounded by her extended family at the table next to us. Why was this elderly woman being warehoused in detention when it was clear from the loving interactions that she would be welcome in her daughter’s house?



Converted warehouse where asylum seekers are held

Or for that matter, why was the 28-year old African NGO worker I was visiting in detention? A   friend of her mother’s living in New York wrote a letter to ICE, offering to take her in rather than have her spend 4-6 months locked up detention. Or why was the soft-spoken gay man from Nigeria I used to visit before he was granted asylum subject to the daily humiliations of detention? Or the Ethiopian farmer? Why were they kept locked up, unable to see the sun? The list goes on and on.

Two young Ethiopian men dressed in western clothing, including rubber boots in suburban backyard
Successful asylum seekers

The answer? The perverse incentives of our for-profit prison system. The profit incentive spurs a lot of great innovation when correctly applied to business ventures, but it has a corrosive effect on human decency when misapplied to human rights. The US detention system is a case in point.

The US detention system is run by for profit companies like CoreCivic and the Geo Group. These companies make money off of every filled bed. The companies’ profit margins are also bolstered by the low cost of labor. Detainees are paid $1.00 a day for working in the laundry or kitchen.

Elizabeth Detention Center Core Civic
Core Civic's Elizabeth Detention Center

And the government has an incentive to fill those beds because ICE is required by law to maintain 34,000 beds each night. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, it costs $159 a day per person to hold someone in detention versus 70 cents to $17 for alternatives to detention. Why let people stay with relatives when you have already paid for their bed? A perverse incentive within a perverse incentive, a virtual  Russian matryoshka doll of perverse incentives.

Mamushka russian dolls with mean expression
US Immigration Detention: A virtual Russian Matryoshka doll of perverse incentives

When asylum is requested, people are supposed to be offered parole. Parole is the opportunity to wait out their asylum hearing with a family or friend if the detainee poses no real threat to the US. There is an application for detainees can fill out. However, from what I am told, rejections for parole often come before the detainee has a chance to fill out the parole form. That’s why the ACLU is suing ICE. ICE is breaking the law by failing to offer parole to people like my young NGO worker friend and the West African grandmother.

That’s why when Senator Cory Booker recently visited the Elizabeth Detention Center, he demanded that the detainees he spoke to be given parole applications. The applications were handed out after he left. So far, nothing has happened. 

Senator Cory Booker visited Elizabeth Detention Center

Detaining innocent people drains our national coffers and more devastatingly, the souls of the people trapped within the system. It has to stop. (Read about the Three Unexpected Things Asylum Seekers Miss Most in Detention).

Want a deeper understanding of what we put asylum seekers through beyond the brief words of a Modern-Day Church Lady? Read the excellent article in the Atlantic or listen to the Trumpcast podcast interview with the author, Franklin Foer.

What can you do? Support the ACLU. Write your congressman. Support organizations like First Friends of NJ/NY and American Friends Service Committee who work with people currently trapped within our detention system.


The African Grandmother was released from detention! According to the women still remaining in detention, her case was so obvious that the judge only needed a half hour to hear her story. Final hearing usually take 2-3 hours.


  1. Michael Lattimore

    Excellent article Dorothy.

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