For decades, civil society organisations and human rights defenders have denounced the poor conditions of immigration detention spaces and how they foster human rights violations against people in contexts of mobility in Mexico and the United States.

In recent years, it has been increasingly recognised how important it is to focus conversations on this issue on affected people themselves, especially on the consequences that deprivation of liberty has on their wellbeing and the various ways in which it affects their mental health and relationship with their environment.

For this reason, IDC promoted research on the psychosocial impacts of immigration detention on people who have been detained or who have been at risk of being deprived of their liberty for immigration reasons in Mexico and/or the United States. The objective of these efforts is to make relevant information available to governments in order to advance the design and implementation of programs and/or public policies aimed at mental health care and the promotion of alternatives to detention.

This work considered the documentary review of other related research or reports, in addition to conducting focus groups with people in mobility contexts in Mexico.

What are the psychosocial impacts of immigration detention?

In Mexico and the United States, immigration detention is used as a generalised measure to deprive people of their liberty while their immigration case is being resolved, which in itself has a negative impact. Especially in Mexico, detention is usually made invisible when it is shielded by the use of euphemisms such as presentación (“presentation”) or alojamiento (“housing”). This deprivation of liberty is accompanied by other immigration containment measures, such as roadblocks, greater restrictions or requirements for entry, militarised responses and criminalisation, among others.

Research shows that both people who have been detained as well as those who are or were at risk of being detained may face similar impacts. This is because the possibility of being detained by the authorities means that people are forced to take more dangerous routes, are exposed to risky behaviours that facilitate their entry across borders and are more vulnerable to criminal actors.

Psychosocial impacts have two dimensions, one individual and the other community. On an individual level, people may experience fear, anguish, uncertainty and worry, which is expressed in sleeping difficulties, sadness and hopelessness. It is worth mentioning that, even after release, fear persists in the face of the possibility of being detained again.

On the other hand, at the community level, the consequences of detention have an impact on families and communities, both those of origin and those of destination. Anguish and uncertainty are also effects that the families of detained persons may experience, especially when they have limited information about the situation of their family member or little certainty about what is going to happen.

One of the focus groups in action

From the focus groups, we learned of cases in which the effects and damage to mental and emotional health continued after people were released, in addition to the fact that the time factor was not necessarily proportional to the effects – i.e., a person who was in detention for a week can present the same effects as someone who was detained for months.

Finally, our research also showed how damage can occur in adolescents who remain in a shelter or social assistance centre when the models of these spaces do not allow exits (closed-door models), and in effect, the adolescents are deprived of their freedom.

“I did not process what I went through until I got out of there.”
“My body could no longer resist, I became anxious.”
“I am so afraid of being caught again.”
– Phrases from focus group participants.

What role do Alternatives to Detention (ATD) play in counteracting these effects?

Alternatives to detention are synonymous with freedom. According to international treaties on the subject, immigration detention should be exceptional and be used as a measure of last resort, so we call on States to apply alternative measures that guarantee the freedom of people in contexts of mobility.

When people have access to an alternative measure in the community, not only do they avoid the effects of deprivation of liberty, but they are also freed from the human rights violations that usually occur in places of detention. At the same time, the evidence that IDC has through its work with ATD shows that these measures contribute to people’s confidence in their administrative and/or legal processes, translate into the follow-up of their actions (i.e., they do not abandon their procedures) and facilitate their integration into the host communities, as they are certain of their options and what they can expect for themselves and their families.

To learn more:

We invite you to read our publication Alternatives to Immigration Detention in Transit Migration Contexts for more practical examples and recent developments in the field of ATDs to highlight promising practices and encourage further progress in this area.