Jennifer Cullison
Orcid ID:
University of Nevada, USA


Despite popular understanding of immigrant detention in the US as effectively nonexistent before the 1980s, in reality the practice grew significantly over the early postwar era and especially in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV). Immigrant detention in the RGV became vital in the expanding network of the INS, other federal agencies, and for-profit institutions called here the Border Industrial Complex. Indeed, beginning in 1961 with its first full-fledged, permanent immigrant detention center, the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), South Texas became a major piece of the Border Industrial Complex in its work to control, immobilize, and banish border crossers. Over the early postwar period, immigrant caging (or immigrant detention and immigrant incarceration based on immigration legal code) in the RGV transitioned from a temporary, situational response to a perpetual crisis. With growing Congressional support for immigration enforcement, by the 1970s, not only the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), but also the US Marshals Service and the US Bureau of Prisons had greater numbers of people caged per immigration legal code. In the 1980s and 1990s, as asylum seekers became trapped in indefinite detention in the RGV, abuses within confinement became increasingly common. With quantitative and qualitative historical data, this essay tracks the growth of immigrant caging across the nation and at the PIDC. Using federal archives from the US and Mexico as well as collections from various RGV immigrant advocacy organizations, it considers evidence of abuses to, and protest by, those detained in this region. It argues that postwar immigrant detention, as a piece of immigrant caging and the Border Industrial Complex overall, has proven a human rights disaster.

Keywords: Border Industrial Complex, immigrant detention, undocumented immigration, Port Isabel Detention Center.