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Annie Lai
UC Irvine School of Law

The Price of Freedom: Immigration Courts and the Private Immigration Bond Industry

 Federal authorities' reliance on the detention of immigrants facing deportation has risen at alarming rates in the past two decades, and with the policies of the current Administration, it is only expected to continue to grow. The United States now operates the largest civil immigration detention system in the world. In the criminal justice arena, federal and state courts are expected to take an individual's financial circumstances into account when setting pretrial bail. A movement to abolish the cash bail system and the detention of persons simply because they are poor is gaining momentum. Economic inequality, however, is yet not a prevalent part of conversations about reform of the immigration detention system—though it is very much a part of immigrants’ lived reality. Moreover, in immigration proceedings, when individuals are eligible for release, judges are not required to consider their ability to pay when setting bond. This results not only in the systematic confinement of many immigrants on the basis of indigency, but in precarious arrangements between immigrants and private immigration bond companies that profit off their desperation.

 This paper presents an initial scholarly analysis of the private bond companies that operate in the immigration detention sphere. After describing the relationship between state actors and the private bond industry, as well as terms and conditions typically imposed by bond companies, I explain how the presentation of unequal access to wealth as a natural and necessary part of our economic system has fueled the accumulation of power in the bond industry and, in turn, further exacerbated the economic marginalization of low-income, mixed status families. In addition, I explore the ways in which social constructions of immigrants and persons of color have contributed to perceptions of flight risk and danger, thus creating opportunities for private industry to step into the breach with security-based solutions. Finally, I discuss distortions the private bond practices are having on immigration case outcomes.