Focusing U.S. immigration detention costs
There was much controversy last week about federal officials releasing hundreds of immigrants from detention centers ahead of the looming budget cuts. But the real issue should be that U.S. taxpayers foot the steep bill to detain more than 30,000 people every day — not that a group of immigrants who pose little threat to public safety were transferred out of federal facilities last week.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the move out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, the result is smarter enforcement that could save the federal government tens of thousands of dollars per day, if not hundreds of thousands, based on data from the president’s most recent budget request.
We are all for detaining criminals. But those now on supervised release are the kind of people who should never have been in detention in the first place. Miguel Hernandez, for example, had been detained after being pulled over for not using his car’s turn signal. Not exactly a criminal offense.
Don’t get me wrong: We should all use our turn signals. But we should not lose sleep because Hernandez is out of detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has emphasized that no serious criminal offenders were transferred. Given the agency’s propensity to detain criminals and non-criminals alike, we have no reason to doubt their reassurances.
In addition, neither Hernandez nor anyone else has been entirely freed. Transferred detainees are supervised, must still appear in court and are still in deportation proceedings.
Where some now see political controversy, we see one small example of long-overdue government efficiency that prioritizes real threats and could save millions of dollars at a time when government must do as much saving as possible. If all non-criminal detainees were moved to community-based alternative forms of supervision, the government could save up to $1.6 billion a year. Pretty soon, as they say, we’ll be talking real money.
Such prioritization is not new. Law enforcement agencies commonly use alternatives to detention for non-criminals who do not pose a flight risk, in an effort to use their resources as effectively as possible. Nor is it new to this agency: Immigration and Customs officials acknowledged the need to prioritize when they announced that the agency would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in immigration cases to make sure “resources are focused on the agency’s enforcement priorities.”
Since that 2011 announcement, walking the walk has been difficult. Prosecutorial discretion has been applied in only a small number of immigration cases. In the meantime, we, the taxpayers, are footing an enormous bill to keep immigrants in detention — roughly $5.4 million per day, according to National Immigration Forum estimates.
A January report by the Migration Policy Institute further notes that we spend more on immigration enforcement, including detention, than on all other federal criminal law enforcement combined.
What if we detained and deported only immigrants without documentation who pose a threat to public safety? Instead of $164 per detention bed each day, alternatives such as weekly check-ins or ankle bracelets would lower the cost per detainee to no more than $14 daily – and as little as 30 cents. The alternatives are also highly effective. People in these programs show up for their immigration hearings 94 percent of the time — exceeding Homeland Security Department targets.
Alternatives to detention would allow us to spend less on private prisons. As of 2009, almost half of immigration detainees were held in private prisons, where abuse and poor conditions have led to complaints.
A pair of private-prison corporations, the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, made hundreds of millions of dollars in 2012 from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Bureau of Prisons contracts to detain non-citizens. These two companies give millions to lobbyists and political campaigns — no less than $45 million combined on state and federal campaign donations and lobbyists in the past decade, according to a 2012 report.
The bottom line is that transferring a few hundred low-risk detainees into other forms of supervision is not the irresponsible, even dangerous move that some have asserted.
Irresponsible is a broken immigration system that has us spending many millions on detention when we have so many other priorities. The politically charged reactions that followed the detainee transfer should be channeled into the productive conversation already under way in Congress about a better immigration process.
That process must rely less on detention and deportation, more on keeping families together and helping hardworking immigrants contribute to our country. Spending less on immigration enforcement won’t hurt, either.
We shouldn’t need a looming financial crisis to make smart changes to an immigration process that so clearly needs them.
PHOTO (Top): Maer Torrescano, 6, rests with his father Havacuc, 24, from the state of Morelos, Mexico, at the U.S. Border Patrol detention center in Nogales, Arizona, May 31, 2006. REUTERS/Jeff Topping
PHOTO (Insert): Arlete Pichardo (L) stands in line with fellow graduating undocumented UCLA students at a graduation ceremony for UCLA ‘Dreamers,’ or Dream Act students at a church near the campus in Los Angeles, California, June 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn