Different Perspectives on Migrant Detention

Over the summer of 2019, controversy erupted over the conditions in many of the detention facilities where migrants are being held along the United States’ southern border. The increased number of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, in combination with changes to US immigration policy that are keeping more migrants in detention while they wait for court dates,1 has led to both overcrowding at many border detention facilities and to the use of facilities that were not designed for detaining migrants. While conditions among facilities vary, advocates, government officials, and migrants have reported inhumane conditions in many detention centers.2

This Teaching Idea is designed to give students insight into migration and migrant detention through different perspectives⁠—migrants who were detained, an immigration lawyer and advocate, a border guard, and an immigration judge. Examining this issue through different perspectives can help students gain important insight into the situation in detention centers and engage in ethical reflection about the treatment of migrants at the border. However, descriptions of the conditions in some facilities are disturbing, and it is important to review materials to determine if they are appropriate for your students.


To provide your students with context on terms around migration, such as migrant, refugee, and asylum seeker, share our Explainer on Migration with your students. For more background information on how the asylum process functions in the United States, you can teach the activity “How Does the Asylum Process Work?” in our Teaching Idea What is Our Obligation to Asylum Seekers?

  1. How Do Migrants Experience Detention Centers?

    Begin by asking students to reflect—individually or as a class—on what they already know about migration and migrant detention and what emotions they feel about this topic.

    Then, ask your students to read the Texas Tribune article No Toothbrushes or Showers, Kids Coughing All Night: Migrants Describe Conditions inside Border Facilities. (Note: If you wish to shorten the article, you can stop reading before the paragraph that begins, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes Border Patrol, said it could not comment . . . ”) Ask your students:

    • What conditions do migrants describe seeing in different detention facilities?
    • Did you learn anything that reinforced, extended, or challenged what you knew about migrant detention?
  2. How Do Officials and Advocates Understand Their Responsibilities to Migrants?

    In this activity, students learn about migration and migrant detention centers along the US–Mexico border through three different perspectives:

    Place students into three groups, and give each group a different perspective to read. They should use the following questions to discuss their article as a group:

    • In one of the articles in this activity, a border guard remarks “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on [the inhumane treatment of migrants in detention centers] as normal."3 What do you think he means? What factors do you think could affect whether the person in your article accepts the inhumane treatment of migrants as normal or not?
    • How does the person in your article perceive their professional responsibilities?
    • What ethical dilemmas do they face in their work with migrants?
    • How do they resolve the tension between the responsibilities of their job and what they perceive as the ethical dilemmas around the treatment of migrants?
    • What options might this person have to make sure migrants are being treated humanely? What are they choosing to do?

    After students discuss these questions with their group, ask them to form new groups with at least one person who read each piece. Students should use the last question as a starting point to introduce their article and discuss it with their new group (What could this person do to make sure migrants are being treated humanely? What are they choosing to do?).

    End with an individual reflection. Students can respond in their journals, using the following questions as a guide:

    • What emotions did reading or hearing these different perspectives raise for you?
    • What do you think about the ethics of migration and migrant detention after reading or hearing these different perspectives?
    • What can you do to help ensure that migrants are treated humanely, at the border and in your own community?

Additional Resources


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