Theses Doctoral

Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002

Nofil, Brianna

“Detention Power” asks how immigrant incarceration became a critical tool in constructing American sovereignty, and how the federal government convinced local governments, businesses, and communities to become collaborators in immigration policing. It illustrates how the U.S. immigration service built both ideological and economic relationships with municipalities, enabling the federal government to jail thousands of migrants awaiting hearings and deportations long before the advent of federal immigration detention centers in 1980. As early as 1900, the immigration service relied on an expansive system of contracts with county sheriffs to “board out” immigrants in county jails. Towns capitalized on these contracts by expanding their jails and, in some cases, building separate “migrant jails” to secure federal detainees, effectively transforming incarcerated migrants into local commodities. I trace the immigration service’s use of jails from the era of Chinese Exclusion to the era of ICE, looking to rural communities throughout the country that became the unlikely hubs of incarceration for immigrants and refugees from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond. This work challenges the historiography which has identified immigration detention as a product of the Cold War era, influenced by the law-and-order movement of the late twentieth century. It is among the first work to center the role of local politics in the rise of the deportation state, arguing that though immigration regulation was a federal responsibility, deportations were impossible to carry out without local cooperation and local jails.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-05-16.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ngai, Mae
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 23, 2020