What You Need to Know about Biden’s Immigrant Detention Numbers: A Closer Look at New Trends

Austin Kocher, PhD
3 min readApr 5, 2022


Immigrant detention has been controversial from the days of Ellis and Angel Islands in the late 1800s through the emergence of a for-profit detention system in the 1980s and up until today. Although immigration restrictionists and many DHS officials view immigrant detention as necessary to deter immigration to the United States and force immigrants to show up for court hearings, many scholarly historical analyses illustrate the more troubling history of immigrant detention not as a simple policy solution, but as the product of prejudice, profiteering, and a punitive approach to what is, in fact, a civil matter.

“Despite the common refrain that immigration law is “broken,” immigration imprisonment is a sign that the United States immigration policy is working exactly as designed. The system hasn’t malfunctioned. It was intended to punish, stigmatize, and marginalize-all for political and financial gain.”

— César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, Migrating to Prison

Whatever your political views on the matter, a good way to stay current with immigrant detention policy and practice is to follow the data.

New data released yesterday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) show that the number of immigrants in detention appears to have settled in at around 20,000 people at any given point in time. There has been relatively little change in recent weeks. And while no news is no news for the 24-hour news cycle, no news is news for researchers who are trying to make sense of how the Biden administration’s approach to immigration enforcement differs (or fails to differ) from previous administrations.

As I have emphasized in the past1, the data in this chart represents the number of people in detention on the day that the data is exported from ICE’s data systems. This means that we are looking at a picture — a static snapshot taken at the dates along the x-axis — not a video.

A video of ICE’s detention system would show that even though the total number of beds filled remains consistently around 20,000 at any point in time, many more people are passing through the system, then released and monitored on ICE’s alternatives to detention program.

The picture only captures a single frame — but it’s an important frame because it illustrates how many total detention beds that ICE needs to have on reserve under its current model.

Speaking of ICE detention capacity, Eileen Sullivan at the New York Times recently reported2 that the Biden administration is seeking a 25% reduction in the number of detention beds funded by Congress in his proposed budget, reducing it from 34,000 to 25,000. This is hardly a sign that President Biden is on the cusp of abolishing detention, but after years of increasing detention budgets, this does represent a significant move in the other direction.

Read the rest of this story at https://austinkocher.substack.com/p/what-you-need-to-know-about-bidens?s=w.



Austin Kocher, PhD

I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at austinkocher.com.