Q & A: Immigration Detention


February 21, 2013 by Ceris Ontario

(A Question and Answer with Stephanie J. Silverman)

How would you explain your topic to someone who knows very little about the political climate surrounding immigration detention?

Immigration detention is the holding of a non-citizen by a state for the purposes of an immigration-related goal.  Detention is not prison because immigration transgressions are civil violations not criminal transgressions. Nonetheless, detention centres increasingly resemble prisons in every way but name.  Many scholars are doing extremely interesting work looking at how detention contributes to the criminalization of immigration.  My work covers this aspect but it is more focused on the normative ethics of the practice.  I ask questions like, “Is this the morally correct route for liberal states to take? If not, what are the better options? Are these options feasible in the short-term and the long-term, and do they bring us closer to living in a more fair and just world?”

To what extent have recent changes in immigration policies in Canada affected the prevalence of immigration detention?

The recent changes in immigration policies have introduced into the Canadian political landscape the idea of mandatory detention as well as a series of poorly defined categories of newly-detainable migrants. This change should not be underestimated: whereas the Canadian detention estate had previously been looked upon by practitioners and activists in other countries as a flexible system to emulate, it is currently developing into amongst the worse of the smaller liberal, democratic states.  It is puzzling why the government is choosing to go down this route, and I hope to use future research opportunities to investigate the reasoning behind this choice.

I understand that you’ve done quite a bit of research in the United States, United Kingdom and within Canada, have you noticed any major differences, in political or social climates, that have affected your ability to conduct research in these different jurisdictions?

My doctoral thesis examines the UK, but I have published on the US and Canada as well. Each of these countries presents interesting challenges and opportunities. I have found that there are more scholars looking at the US than Canada or the UK, but I think this is because the scale of the detention estate there dwarfs the other two.  My most in-depth research has been on the UK estate and I’ve run into obstacles with access to detainees and the centres as well as access to data with the Home Office being not as forthcoming with figures as we in the research community would like.

What are some of the major challenges that you’ve had to overcome throughout your research, and how did you approach them?

My research is extremely interdisciplinary. I position it at a nexus of migration studies, political and ethical theory, and policy studies.  I’d say that my biggest challenge has been trying to put these disciplines into conversation, and to find audiences that are receptive to this interplay of methodologies and information. It has also been challenging to ask people to step back from their immediate emotional responses to detention in order to look at the moral questions from a more meta-ethical standpoint.

 What tips or suggestions would you give someone who was thinking about beginning to pursue research in this area?

If you are going to study immigration detention, be prepared to be constantly shocked.  It seems that almost every day I learn something new that I was not expecting because it seems either too bizarre or shameful to be true.  For example, I just learned that over the past decade in the US, three major private prison firms spent 45 million USD on campaign donations and lobbyists to push detention legislation at the state and federal level; the return on their investments is estimated to be 5.1 billion USD in revenues.  In the detention centres run by one of these firms – Corrections Corporation of America – immigration detainees may be charged as much as 5 USD per minute to use the phone, including when they call their legal representatives.  These sorts of facts are always shocking to me.

 If you could complete any project, or conduct any research in the future, what would it look like? Why do you think it is important?

As mentioned, I would like to do more research on the normative ethics of Canadian detention practices. I am interested to know what stakeholders think about the mandatory detention policy, whether they think it will achieve its stated ambition of deterring irregular migrants, and, if not, what sorts of alternatives we can put in place, again with the overarching goal of living in a more just and fair society.  In addition, I am interested in policy dissemination of detention practices amongst states, the ethics of age assessment technology for detained children, and the conceptualisation of the idea of absconding and flight risk.


About the blog author

Stephanie J. Silverman is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime, and Security at Osgoode Hall Law School, and a researcher at the Refugee Research Network project on asylum and immigration detention.  She wrote her doctoral dissertation at COMPAS and St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, on The Normative Ethics of Immigration Detention in Liberal States.  Stephanie has conducted analytical, empirical, legal, and policy research on the UK, US, and Canadian immigration detention systems, as well as on the issues of child and family detainees, bail and judicial review, protest in and against detention centres, detained asylum seekers, and alternatives to detention. She founded and continues to convene both the Detention Workshop, an academic discussion group on immigration detention, as well as an international working group on the normative ethics of immigration control.


One thought on “Q & A: Immigration Detention

  1. […] This is a nice interview about Canada’s new detention rules. One of the things it touches upon is just how lucrative the detention business is. It only mentions the United States, but this is true across the world. Which is why governments continue to detain migrants, as I’ve also pointed out in a previous post – despite the fact that it’s anything but progressive to lock up people who have committed no felony and despite the fact that it costs the state lots of money money to incarcerate these people. […]

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