Imagine a criminal justice system that required police to make sure 34,000 people filled its cells every night, regardless of crime, severity or conviction.
While that sounds improbable, it is exactly how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement goes about its business following a 2009 Congressional mandate. Under the requirements, the agency must fill 34,000 detainee beds in its system every night at an annual cost of $2 billion to taxpayers.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11), along with U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, (D-FL,21), praised the Obama administration’s recent letter opposing the requirement last week, and put renewed energy behind their fight to end ICE detention quotas. Earlier this year, the two legislators introduced a measure to make undocumented immigrants more aware of their rights and set up an Office of Legal Access Programs. The legislation is called the Immigrant Detainee Legal Rights Act H.R. 3914.
“The budget issues are not lost on either party,’’ Foster said, noting that a policy based on need rather than an arbitrary quota could cut the cost of detentions by $1.4 billion. “That’s why we have bipartisan support.’’
Foster was joined at the press conference with Deutch; Joshua Breisblatt, manager of policy and advocacy for the National Immigration Forum; and Royce Bernstein Murray, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Immigrant detainees cost $161 per night, but the lawmakers say there are alternatives that cost as little as 70 cents to $17 a day. Such lower cost detention alternatives include ankle bracelets, curfews, and telephone and in-person reporting. The policy has been derided by critics as punitive and overly simplistic, with no regard to each situation and little respect for the judgement of immigration authorities.
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.
Not only would alternatives to detention be cheaper, they would be more humane, especially since 90 percent of undocumented residents show up for hearings, say the lawmakers. The mandate results in the detention of people who don’t require it and puts certain populations at risk of experiencing an unfair burden as a result of being held by ICE. These groups include:
Family breadwinners who support children and households and contribute to the workforce.
People with health issues inappropriate for detention.
People awaiting political asylum.
People with mental illness.
People who are HIV positive.
LGBT immigrants who face persecution in detention.
People with special needs often end up in solitary confinement for their protection, despite having done nothing to deserve the isolation.
Bernstein from the National Immigrant Justice Center recounted a story of a man who was detained for 51 days after a traffic stop during which he was taking a sick child to the hospital. Not only was he unable to work to support that sick child and the rest of his family during that stretch, his keep cost taxpayers more than $8,000.
The mandate was passed by Congress in 2009, but has not been supported by the Obama administration. Recently the White House intensified its opposition when Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell responded to Foster with a notice stating that the administration does not have plans to request funding to continue the practice in the 2015 budget.
“As Congress enters the appropriations process, having the Administration on record against the detention bed mandate is an important step forward,” said Deutch. “Ending the detention bed mandate would bring ICE in line with the best practices of law enforcement while protecting families and saving the taxpayers more than a billion dollars.”