Reuniting Families: Understanding the Impact of Immigration Prison Decarceration Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic on Detained Immigrants and Their Families

Awarded Scholars:
Caitlin Patler, University of California, Davis
Altaf Saadi, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School
Project Date:
Mar 2021
Award Amount:

Co-funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York

Between 2008 and 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Control (ICE) apprehended over two million non-citizens in the U.S., and in 2019, about 55,000 were in detention centers on any given day. Many detainees have lived in the U.S. for decades and have spouses and/or dependent children. Although mass detention of immigrants has potentially far-reaching consequences for their families, its effects have not been widely studied. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant change in detention practices, whereby courts ordered detention centers to reduce their populations to ensure social distancing and protect the health of medically vulnerable detainees and prison staff. This presents a unique opportunity to assess whether and how decarceration impacts these individuals and their families. It may also help inform alternative detention policies, in which individuals continue with immigration proceedings without being placed in custody. Sociologist Caitlin Patler and Altaf Saadi, a physician researcher, will conduct a longitudinal, mixed-methods study following released detainees in the year following their release. They will evaluate the extent to which release from detention affects their wellbeing and that of their family, measured across domains including employment, income, housing, household structure, relationships, physical and mental health, and engagement with and trust of social institutions. The investigators will partner with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has provided access to the universe of released detainees across all court orders that it has litigated. They have launched a longitudinal telephone survey of 300 randomly selected released individuals, with a baseline interview conducted as soon as feasible following release, and four post-release follow-ups (at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months). Any adult who speaks English or Spanish, and provides informed consent, will be eligible for the study.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.