This month’s release of Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’ new Netflix miniseries about a socialite scammer running through elite circles in New York has included all the usual press buzz: the star, Julia Garner, showing off the accent she developed on Jimmy Fallon, interviews with the show’s creators, and articles comparing the story of the real Anna Sorokin to the Anna Delvey shown on screen. Through this coverage, it was revealed that the Russian-born Sorokin—who served three and a half years of her four-to-12-year sentence—is currently in an immigration detention facility in upstate New York fighting her deportation to Germany. While some have called Sorokin’s case unusual, her experience is actually quite ordinary for the tens of thousands of immigrants in detention centres in the U.S.
Since being in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sorokin has been through a lot: She was put in “medical isolation” after testing positive for Covid-19, the trauma of her detainment prompted her to self-harm, and she has expressed a lack of medical attention. Detained for seven months because of the slow-moving bureaucracy, communication from ICE about her hearing dates remains unclear. From interviews, it’s evident that Sorokin is exhausted, upset, and surprised that someone like her—young, white, and wealthy—could be in her position. After all, poverty-stricken brown boogeymen have been cast as the face of immigration and detention.
According to a BuzzFeed News analysis of a federal database of deportation cases in America, an overwhelming majority of immigrants facing deportation on noncriminal grounds who are placed in detention centres are Latinx. Mexicans face the harshest treatment, followed by migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Even more, while Black immigrants make up only 5.4% of the unauthorised population in the U.S., more than one out of every five people facing deportation on criminal grounds is Black. “ICE racially profiles and separates people from their loved ones and community every day based on what they look like, the language they speak, where they work, and more,” Silky Shah, the Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, tells Refinery29 Somos. And the problem is getting worse. Since U.S. President Joe Biden has taken office, ICE detention has increased by 50%, benefiting private prison corporations, which charge the federal government enormous sums to keep people incarcerated, and harming communities. As someone who works in the field of immigration justice, I’ve witnessed up close all the ways ICE dehumanises and harms these communities with tactics like long-term detention, and I have worked with many brave people who have spoken out about their experiences in an effort to abolish ICE.
While some have called Sorokin’s case unusual, her experience is actually quite ordinary for the tens of thousands of immigrants in detention centers.
Much like her detainment, Sorokin’s prison-to-detention story isn’t unique. Six weeks after Sorokin was released from the Albion Correctional Facility on parole in February 2021, she was taken to ICE’s Orange County Correctional Facility for overstaying her visa. Like her, many Black and brown immigrants with prior convictions are picked up by ICE after they’ve finished a prison sentence or during a mandatory ICE check-in. Sometimes, ICE waits outside the jail doors to pick up immigrants on the day of their release to immediately transport them to a detention facility. Because ICE has contracts to detain immigrants in county jails and private prison corporations, these migrants often end up in institutions similar to the ones they just left.
For those who regard prison sentences punitively, as a “debt” that someone who has committed a crime owes to society (and not, say, a tool used to extract free labor from Black and brown bodies), then someone who has just left prison has already “paid” that debt. As such, re-imprisonment in an ICE detention centre constitutes double-punishment for a single crime—and immigrants of colour, who encounter systemic racism and xenophobia, are most likely to find themselves in this scenario. Black and Latinx immigrants, who often live in over-policed neighbourhoods, have an above-average number of interactions with police and, consequently, criminal convictions; this alone can be grounds for deportation, regardless of their legal status (like being a permanent resident).
Inside detention centres, institutionalised harm continues. Through my work, I’ve spent hours of my time poring over ICE detention centre inspection reports detailing facility inadequacies and mistreatment of immigrants. Even government inspectors have acknowledged horrifying conditions, like insufficient bathrooms and mould growing in shared living spaces, at centres that regularly “pass” their inspections. In addition to prison-like mandated counts and lack of privacy, migrants have complained of regular threats of violence and intimidation from guards. In fact, ICE faces multiple allegations of sexual assault every year. “Immigration detention is inherently inhumane and arbitrary,” Shah says. “ICE’s record of abuse inside detention is well-documented by immigrant rights advocates and the Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of Inspector General.”
And this abuse has devastating consequences on survivors and their families. Countless immigrants have shared that the constant exposure to suffering in detention centres and isolation from supportive loved ones have had deep and lasting effects on their mental health. Between 2018 and 2020, nine people in ICE detention died by suicide, and countless others leave detention centres deeply traumatised. There are community costs, too. Entire neighbourhoods and towns are devastated by ICE raids and collateral arrests. Detentions and deportations create tremendous financial and emotional stress on families, who can be left scrambling to find representation for their loved ones, funds to pay the bills, and added anxiety about their own immigration statuses. “Simply put, people navigating their immigration case should be able to do so with their families and in community—not behind bars in immigration detention," Shah adds.
Immigration detention is inherently inhumane and arbitrary.
The wildest part: No one in ICE detention is serving time for a crime. The primary reason that ICE detentions exist is to ensure people go to their court dates. However, the vast majority of immigrants don’t need to be jailed to do this. In fact, 80% of all non-detained immigrants attend their hearings, according to the non-partisan data collection agency TRAC. This number shoots up to 99% when people have attorneys representing them in their cases.
But for low-income immigrants of colour, legal representation is hard to come by. Even Sorokin, who has legal representation and media attention on her case, acknowledges that ICE and immigration courts operate in a deeply unfair way. In an interview with The New York Times, she said she was helping others in her detention centre find legal assistance. “I have not heard of a single success story of someone being arrested and finding a good free immigration lawyer while in jail. The system is predatory: You’re set up for failure,” she said.
This is because Sorokin’s experience in an ICE detention centre, and those she has witnessed of others inside the upstate New York facility, are common across the country. Sorokin’s story is only unusual in the kinds of privilege she has been afforded—tens of thousands of others, predominantly impoverished immigrants of colour, face the awful and dehumanising conditions of immigration detention without the benefit of a national platform to call attention to their plight.