Harmful by Design—a Qualitative Study of the Health Impacts of Immigration Detention

Chanelle Diaz, Veronica Ortiz, Lesly Sanchez, Jose Fernandez, Elí A. Andrade, Matthew J. Akiyama, Jonathan Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: The USA has the largest immigration detention system in the world with over 20,000 individuals imprisoned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) daily. Numerous reports have documented human rights abuses in immigration detention, yet little is known about its health impacts. Objective: To characterize how the US immigration detention system impacts health from the perspective of people who were recently detained by ICE. Design: Qualitative study using anonymous, semi-structured phone interviews in English or Spanish conducted between July 2020 and February 2021. Participants: Adults who had been detained by ICE for at least 30 days in the New York City metropolitan area within the previous 2 years, and that were fluent in English and/or Spanish. Approach: We explored participants’ health histories and experiences trying to meet physical and mental health needs while in detention and after release. We conducted a reflective thematic analysis using an inductive approach. Key Results: Of 16 participants, 13 identified as male; five as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer; and four as Black; they were from nine countries. Participants had spent a median of 20 years living in the USA and spent a median of 11 months in immigration detention. Four themes emerged from our analysis: (1) poor conditions and inhumane treatment, (2) a pervasive sense of injustice, (3) structural barriers limiting access to care, and (4) negative health impacts of immigration detention. Conclusions: The narratives illustrate how structural features of immigration detention erode health while creating barriers to accessing needed medical care. Clinicians caring for immigrant communities must be cognizant of these health impacts. Community-based alternatives to immigration detention should be prioritized to mitigate health harms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2030-2037
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • COVID-19
  • detention
  • immigration
  • structural vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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