Different Perspectives on Migrant Detention

Last Updated: July 15, 2021

Over the last few years, controversy has surrounded 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 keep more migrants in detention while they wait for court dates—has led to overcrowding at many border detention facilities, which in turn has led to a surge of COVID-19 infections among people detained in these facilities. While conditions among facilities vary, advocates, government officials, and migrants have reported inhumane conditions in many detention centers.

This Teaching Idea is designed to give students insight into migration and the systems surrounding migrant detention through different perspectives⁠—those of 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.

Note: The articles used in this Teaching Idea describe conditions in immigrant detention facilities in 2019 during the Trump administration. Immigration policy has shifted under the Biden administration, but many of the same detention facilities are in use and critics continue to point to overcrowded and inhumane conditions. The article Border Challenges Dominate, But Biden’s First 100 Days Mark Notable Under-the-Radar Immigration Accomplishments from the Migration Policy Institute describes which immigration policies have changed under Biden and which have remained in place. 

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.


We suggest beginning with our Teaching Idea Why Do People Migrate? in order to provide students an opportunity to first reflect on the stories of migrants, including the circumstances surrounding their decisions to seek new homes. 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. 

  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 at the US–Mexico border 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 already 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. Ask students to draw a Character Map for the person they are focusing on. Students can draw the character map on their own piece of paper or on the Character Map handout. They should draw an outline of a person and answer the following questions as a group next to their drawings:

    • Head: How does the person in your article think about their professional responsibilities?
    • Mouth: What does this person say about their job? Why do they say about immigration?
    • Heart: How do you think this person feels about their job? What ethical dilemmas do they face at work?
    • Hands: What actions have they taken or do they want to take when it comes to immigration?
    • Feet: What options might this person have to make sure migrants are being treated humanely? What are they choosing to do?

    After students finish their character maps, ask them to form new groups with at least one person who read each piece. Students should use their character maps to introduce their article and discuss it with their new group. 

    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

  • For more information on the history of US border policy, listen to NPR’s Throughline podcast The Border.
  • In our video The Importance of Humanizing Refugees, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power explains how she works to make difficult problems seem easier to solve.
  • Our collection, Teaching Current Events: Global Immigration, highlights our most recent resources that explore the policies, debates, and human stories behind this defining global issue.
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