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The Lost History of U.S. Immigration Detention Centers

On November 16th, soon-to-be Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and former Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History here at UC Davis Jessica Ordaz gave a talk entitled “Spaces of Exception, Masculinity, and Testimonies of Punishment in the Imperial Valley, 1986-1994.” Focusing on the immigrant detention center in El Centro, California, Ordaz’s research explores violence and its relationship to the criminalization of migrants, arguing that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) played a key role in perpetuating this phenomenon. By “interrogating the physical violence committed against detainees,” Ordaz hopes to better understand how detainees developed forms of resistance against violent punishment.

Her work relies heavily on a theoretical framework based in spatial analysis, particularly in discovering how INS officials used space to construct “regimes of punishment.” Other themes central to her project include state violence, pain, neoliberalism, carceral geography, exclusion in immigration facilities, and racial capitalism.

Above all else, Ordaz is interested in uncovering the lost history of detention centers in the United States, envisioning her work as contributing further to recent studies on the criminalization of migrants. She chose to focus on El Centro because it has the longest history, having first opened in the 1940s.

Ordaz highlighted several detainee testimonies during the talk. These testimonies, Ordaz argues, demonstrate a larger structure of violence within detention centers that is exasperated by today’s hostile climate towards immigrants.

Significantly, most of the testimonies Ordaz engaged with reveal how INS guards transformed detention center bathrooms into spaces to commit acts of violence against detainees. For Ordaz, this reveals how INS guards created “a safe space to enact violence on the brown bodies of the detained.”

The bathroom as a violent space thus symbolizes, in Ordaz’s mind, the government’s intent to assert its sovereignty and power on brown bodies. Through violence, harassment, and other dehumanizing processes, the INS can inhibit the migration of ethnic minorities into the United States.

That detention centers are mostly privatized is also a problem. The conservative impulse to cut costs and create efficiency comes, as Ordaz argues, at the expense of common decency and humanity, resulting in detainees being abused mentally and physically. This is compounded by their lack of access to adequate medical care and legal counsel.

In the end, Ordaz’s intention is to show how the U.S. government created a system of racial subordination through its detention centers that dehumanizes non-citizen migrants and normalizes acts of violence towards them in an effort to keep them out of the country.

One attendee made an interesting point after the talk. She asked: “what is the significance of the fact that most INS guards are also people of color?” Ordaz agreed that this was something that would be worth looking into. Discovering how INS guards envision themselves and their relationship to the detainees might add much important context to Ordaz’s research.

It might also be useful to study the testimonies or memoirs of those few migrants who were granted access to the United States after being detained in these facilities (Ordaz’s research focuses on those who were deported). Their views, as well as those of INS guards, may help us better understand the kind of subordination migrants are subjected to.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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