Imagine if a law enforcement agency insisted on incarcerating a certain number of prisoners, every day, every year, regardless of how many of those prisoners actually needed to be there; what the actual crime rate was; and whether there was another, cheaper way to keep track of them.
That’s the state of the US immigration detention system, where—believe it or not—ICE takes it upon itself to fill an average of 34,000 beds in detention centers with immigrants every single night. Today, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Bill Foster (D-IL) sent a letter signed by 63 of their colleagues to President Obama asking him to remove the FY15 budget request that would keep this mandate in place.
The apparent requirement to have 34,000 detainees on hold at all times seems especially inhumane considering that most immigrants have not committed crimes—they’re only there to fill the quote, not to protect public safety. Furthermore, conditions in detention are often cruel and inhuman, involving overcrowding and—all too often—solitary confinement. The US detention system is so broken that last week, Dora Schriro, a former director of ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning, called for an end to ICE-run, prison-style detention facilities, saying that civil alternatives should be “normalized” instead.
As Rep. Foster said today in a press statement:
Mandatory detention comes at a high cost both for taxpayers and immigrant families who are needlessly torn apart. Not only is this quota fiscally irresponsible, but it makes it impossible for DHS to make rational decisions about detention based on enforcement priorities and needs. It is time to end this costly and unjust practice.
A Bloomberg editorial today helps explain why the detention “bed mandate” is such a grossly inefficient and unjust policy. Currently, ICE spends $159 per day per detainee, which adds up to over $2 billion annually spent on immigration detention. Alternatives to detention, however—such as ankle bracelets and home visits—cost as little as 70 cents to $17 a day. Few detainees are likely to flee their homes and communities just to evade ICE–undocumented immigrants appear for administrative hearings more than 90% of the time. Yet the system insists on holding immigrants in the most expensive and least compassionate way possible.
Why? Bloomberg explains:
Partly because punitive actions against undocumented immigrants are popular in some congressional districts and partly because a more rational approach would disrupt cherished revenue streams. Private-prison lobbies have pushed to keep lucrative detention centers open. And local officials have “treated the increase in bed mandates as a source of revenue for counties and a job creator for their region,” according to a 2013 National Immigration Forum report.
Bloomberg News has reported on ICE’s efforts to increase efficiency by moving immigrants held in Alabama to a facility in Georgia. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, threatened to block ICE requests to the committee if Alabama’s detention beds were not retained.
Even in these states, though, some legislators are beginning to see the light and calling on ICE to rethink mass detention. Alabama Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus (while did not sign this week’s letter) has questioned ICE officials in the past about the bed mandate. And as the Bloomberg editorial concludes, a broken detention system is an irrational miscarriage of justice no matter how one feels about immigration reform:
Americans can disagree about the nature of immigration and the best ways to reform the system (or not). But wasting money on an arbitrary prison mandate serves no one’s interest. It’s hard to see how the micromanagement by Congress, and the waste of taxpayer funds, will be reversed for 2014; the House appropriations process has been a shambles. Next spring, Deutch and Foster should reintroduce their amendment. And the House should show the good sense to put authority — and discretion — for detaining immigrants where it belongs.