25 Years of IIRIRA Shows Immigration Law Gone Wrong

Kica Matos Former Vice President, Initiatives // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jun 28, 2022

Anniversaries offer an opportunity for reflection. This year marks 25 years since the United States implemented the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), a set of laws that criminalized immigrants and centered imprisonment and punishment as core components of the nation’s immigration system. The consequences of these laws—on people, communities, and the nation—have been nothing short of devastating.

IIRIRA created many more categories of people who would henceforth be subject to deportation and mandatory immigration detention. Even minor transgressions like drug possession or shoplifting placed people at risk of being exiled from their homes and separated from their families.

IIRIRA’s statutes helped the United States’ shadowy network of detention facilities metastasize into what today is the largest immigration detention system in the world. Millions of people who came to the United States seeking freedom, opportunity, and safety have been criminalized, put behind bars, and imprisoned in inhumane conditions, with no guaranteed access to legal representation to protect their rights. A record high of more than half a million people were detained in fiscal year 2019 alone.

Survivors of U.S. immigration jails have reported physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, and dangerously poor medical care. Cameroonian immigrants who were held in the Adams County Correctional Center in Louisiana reported being beaten and tortured with pepper spray when they refused to sign deportation papers. In 2020, whistleblower nurse Dawn Wooten revealed that women detained at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia were being given unnecessary hysterectomies without their consent. The list of reported abuses is long and horrifying.

The use of mass civil immigration detention has been justified by the misguided notion that people will not show up for their court hearings if they are not imprisoned. This is simply not true. In fact, decades of research shows that what matters most is a lawyer, and that people who are released from detention continue to appear in court when they are represented by attorneys who can guide them through the complicated process. During the first three years of Vera’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) initiative, which provides free representation to people in deportation proceedings across the country, 98 percent of clients released from detention continued to appear for their scheduled court hearings.

Yet none of this seems to matter, as people continue to be detained in unsafe and inhumane conditions. The changes we see are only happening at the margins and because of the tenacious and tireless efforts of advocates. For example, this year, the Biden administration stopped sending immigrants to three detention centers that had been long criticized for human rights violations. One of these centers, the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, notoriously lacked outdoor recreation facilities, with people facing months or years of confinement without any fresh air or sunshine. That said, it is no comfort to know that ICE simply moved asylum seekers who were imprisoned at Etowah to a detention facility in Louisiana that also has a history of reported abuses.

President Biden also recently requested decreased funding for immigration detention beds in his proposed budget—from 34,000 beds to 25,000. Though modest, this should be a first step in a national strategy to end detention and reverse the harms of laws like IIRIRA. Funds that have been spent detaining people facing deportation should instead be transferred to legal representation programs to ensure that their rights are respected.

Twenty-five years after IIRIRA, it is time for the United States to move away from its failed deportation- and detention-centered policies. Ending detention and providing government funded attorneys to help people navigate deportation proceedings can help begin to reverse the harms of this legislation and move toward an immigration system that centers dignity, fairness, and freedom.