Migrating to Prison

America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants

A leading scholar’s powerful, in-depth look at the imprisonment of immigrants addressing the intersection of immigration and the criminal justice system

“Despite the common refrain that immigration law is ‘broken,’ immigration imprisonment is working exactly as designed. The system hasn’t malfunctioned. It is intended to punish, stigmatize, and marginalize.” —from Migrating to Prison

For most of America’s history, we simply did not lock people up for migrating here. Yet over the last thirty years, the federal and state governments have increasingly tapped their powers to incarcerate people accused of violating immigration laws. As a result, almost 400,000 people annually now spend some time locked up pending the result of a civil or criminal immigration proceeding.

In Migrating to Prison, leading scholar César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández takes a hard look at the immigration prison system’s origins, how it currently operates, and why. He tackles the emergence of immigration imprisonment in the mid-1980s, with enforcement resources deployed disproportionately against Latinos, and he looks at both the outsized presence of private prisons and how those on the political right continue, disingenuously, to link immigration imprisonment with national security risks and threats to the rule of law.

Interspersed with powerful stories of people caught up in the immigration imprisonment industry, including children who have spent most of their lives in immigrant detention, Migrating to Prison is an urgent call for the abolition of immigration prisons and a radical reimagining of the United States: who belongs and on what criteria is that determination made?


“Required reading for anyone fighting for a new immigration policy vision that welcomes immigrants. We need to understand the sadistic, multibillion-dollar industry of immigrant detention so that we can rip it down and make sure it never comes back.”
—Cristina Jiménez, co-founder and executive director of United We Dream
“García Hernández provides an insightful examination of the eerie parallels between immigration imprisonment and mass incarceration. He makes a compelling argument that criminalizing immigration enforcement is not only a seriously flawed practical strategy, but an affront to human rights as well.”
—Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and author of Race to Incarcerate
“A ‘must-read’ for any American interested in the tragic humanitarian impacts of the mass detention of immigrants as a central tool in contemporary immigration enforcement. García Hernández writes cogently, intelligently, and passionately about the increasingly expansive use of detention to regulate immigration. The book could not be more timely.”
—Kevin R. Johnson, dean, University of California, Davis, School of Law
“An accessible history and fierce critique of the U.S. immigration system. . . . His thoughtful mixture of reportage and legal scholarship makes for an important entry in the immigration debate.”
Publishers Weekly
“Essential for anyone trying to understand how the United States came to have the world’s largest detention infrastructure. García Hernández does a masterful job of laying out the turning points of immigration imprisonment from Ellis Island to family separation and the case for abolishing the practice altogether.”
—Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network
“At a time when child migrant camps and family separations have drawn the attention of Americans, Migrating to Prison provides a vital road map to understand how the immigrant detention industry has evolved over the years. A critical and accessible primer for anyone interested in understanding the system—and abolishing it.”
—Deepa Iyer, author of We Too Sing America
Migrating to Prison rips the veils off of the immigration detention system.  García Hernández brings a sharp legal eye to showing how our immigration system has become so twisted that we take for granted the outrageous. If you want a crystal clear explanation of why we need to abolish immigration detention, this is the book for you.”
—Aviva Chomsky, author of Undocumented