Words and Definitions Matter


Recently I was having a conversation about current issues in migration with a 17 year old. I was talking about my experience as a volunteer with an organization that hosts migrants who have been released from detention.

In the course of the conversation, I realized that the word “detention” is probably not the best word to describe the experience of migrants in custody. The young woman I was talking with was not particularly up on current events, and she didn’t fully understand what detention meant. From her response, it seemed like she imagined detention as akin to being sent to the principal’s office at school.

I said, “It’s like jail, they are locked up, often for many months.”

“Wow, really?” was her response.

This conversation led me to ponder why we call this “detention” and not “jail”?

The Merriam-Webster definition of detention is a period of temporary custody prior to disposition by a court.

This is a true characterization of the current situation for many migrants. However, temporary is not necessarily short, as the time can stretch into many months.

The definition of jail is a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody (awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes). This is as opposed to prison, which is a place of confinement, especially for lawbreakers.

So according to the definitions, detention and jail could be interchangeable terms, assuming they are held in lawful custody awaiting court action.

Would the policy debate regarding how migrants are handled by the legal system change if we called their custody “jail” instead of “detention”? Especially for young migrants, saying that they are being held in jails sounds different from saying they are being held in detention centers.

Of course, either word paints a much different picture than calling it “summer camp” for kids; terminology which has been recently used by some people to describe detention centers for minor migrants.

Word choice matters because the words we use to describe a scenario communicate values and perceptions. People who are in detention are locked up and are not free to leave. And they have to wait for a period of time outside of their control for a next step.

Some people in this situation are asylum-seekers, who are going through the legal process of applying for relief from a life-threatening situation in their home country. Others have crossed the border without permission. Either way, they are locked up for a period of time. Sounds like jail to me.

As I was reading differing definitions of terms and discussions over the nuances of language, this online comment caught my attention: “An old jail is a jail. A new jail is a detention center.”

My only hesitation is starting to use the term jail rather than detention center, is that saying that migrants are in jail makes them sound like criminals. People seeking asylum are not criminals.

Perhaps the word I will end on for these thoughts is “complexity” – one of the words that my daughter uses (along with “humanize” and “accompany”) in her work with people who are migrants.






Leave a comment


  1. Carol Kuykendall

     /  August 2, 2018

    so good; so thought-making; thanks for doing what you do. xo

    > WordPress.com

  2. Barb

     /  August 1, 2018

    Excellent points, Carla. You always make me think…and once again realize the complexity of language.


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