Focusing U.S. immigration detention costs

March 4, 2013

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


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Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

Look at the rest of the world.

Japan was an unpopulated group of islands until its first human inhabitants arrived from China.

Quite striking, of course, is the fact than Japan rose to prominence among human cultures because it was, like England, an island nation, and compared to other countries, had almost zero later immigration.

Japan, the land of the gods, grew such a strong culture, admired around the world, because it was not constantly disturbed by immigrations.

That is the exact opposite of, say, India, which has constantly, throughout its history, been disturbed by immigrations. Including its immigrants, India today has a population of 1.17 billion people, compared to Japan’s 128 million.

India has had migration after migration from every direction. It is made up of Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, just to start.

India, the land made of immigrants, has literally dozens of languages, and great corruption. Everybody speaking a different language, worshiping a different god, fighting with each other.

Yet Japan, with a population only one-tenth the size of India’s, has a GDP 4 times as big as India.

Japan, the island nation, protected from immigrations, is a cohesive culture, very high economic production, high per-capita incomes and wages, and the lowest crime rate in the world.

So America should ask itself, do we want to remain a strong culture, like Japan, or do we want to allow immigrations from all directions, and end up like India, with low wages, corruption and chaos?

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

I think it’s smart to cut income for private prisons, and force ICE to investigate more criminals, instead of arresting exchange students who overstayed the visa, or people who seek asylum in this country and booking them into private owned facilities who’s subcontracting the lowest grade “cantine” for DETAINEES. And instruction for arrest states, that there is NO MANDATORY detention for non criminal aliens. And then, if u don’t make troubles but immigration – is JUST a CIVIL ISSUE, and why there is so much buzz about it?

Posted by nikky81 | Report as abusive

“Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for the value of immigrants and immigration to America.” Yep, and that’s precisely what he is doing here.

He has a simple agenda. Unfortunately it’s diametrically contrary to the path America must take towards securing it’s past heritage and present fiscal and national security.

The simple truth is that a massive fifth column has been allowed to infiltrate our country over time that is only starting to make demands. With regard to the “costs” of detaining ILLEGAL ALIENS, whatever it costs to rid ourselves of them now is our cheapest “choice”.

The sole alternative is to face ever climbing social expenses for Spanish forms, booklets, instructions, and teachers. They will quickly be on Medicaid, day lunch programs, neonatal care, emergency treatment because fake green cards are easily available where they congregate. You can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be on Social Security in their old age…all on the U.S. taxpayer’s tab.

What part of “unsustainable” do our leaders not understand?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OOTS, Smith, you lost that war long ago. Now you’re just pissing off the people the we have to live with. No one is going to commit genocide for you. No one can stop time for you. And we most definitely won’t bring back “past heritage”. Your generations created it, now live with it.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I did not mean to come across so strongly OOTS. I look forward to all your comments except when they cross this topic. Your anger in this area is clouding your judgment. We have a 40% Hispanic population that will become the majority, there is nothing short of an apocalypse that will change that. You know this to be true. We may not like it, but we can’t deny it. When the oppressed become the oppressor… well, I’ll let your imagination and knowledge of history take it from there.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

“We are all for detaining criminals. But…”

The author refuses to acknowledge that violating our immigration laws is criminal. The “But” ensures that his next statement will be that there are exceptions to equal and consistent enforcement of our laws as defined in our Constitution.

This is exclusively an argument ruled by emotion. Consistency is abandoned when based on an individual interpretation–of which there are 300 million unique interpretations–thus compromising the rule of law.

Any discussion regarding the efficiency of dollars expended to enforce our laws is a false argument–a straw man to diffuse the discussion. Law enforcement is structured and funded to ensure the safety of our citizens.

We do not have any social or moral obligation to accommodate those who willingly and willfully choose to violate our laws. That is a cost of freedom we each agree to bear.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive


All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. I do what I can, win or lose.

I have no problem with honest citizens of Hispanic origin. My wife has significant Hispanic “blood”. I have no problem with honest immigrants of any race that “bring something to the party” in becoming American. So I am NOT racist. I am American! I have “skin in the game”.

I absolutely oppose the idea of America as a “refuge of last resort” for the dregs of every society south of the Rio Grande. These uneducated, unskilled, unmotivated prolifics consciously seek to burden American citizen-taxpayers with their societal and financial burdens while accepting little or none personally of associated responsibility and/or cost. I understand the difference between a legal immigrant, whom I welcome; and an illegal alien, whom I don’t.

I am prejudiced against stupidity…not that of the fence-jumpers but those who would welcome them and place the burden of them on Americans. I think that’s simply not right.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I’ve used that euphemism a few times myself and truly believe it. I’m hard put to argue the point with you as I agree illegal is illegal and they should not be given a free pass (like we gave the Banksters). I am also not fond of stupidity, but I’ve come to realize that we’re really outnumbered and they tend to get violent. I just looked at forty something comments on Chavez and our countrymen can be a bit foolish. I’m no pansy either. I’ve found most who have been in combat before do not wish it on others so readily. I troll Reuters because 95% of the people don’t know what Reuters is and the comments we pretty darn good. Often better than the articles themselves. But that seems to be changing. I look forward reading your next one, but may start refraining myself though.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

“The author refuses to acknowledge that violating our immigration laws is criminal.”
Which is completely accurate, just in some unidentified parallel universe that does not exist. OK, I’ll take it slow, so try to follow along: Legislative assemblies pass laws. Violations of those laws can be criminal, civil, or administrative. OK, you with me so far? Great! Because most immigration violations are administrative (like an employer failing to keep proper records of employees) or civil. If they were criminal, the criminals would have a right to counsel at all stages of the proceeding, and the Supreme Court said, “[no dice]”, a lifetime banishment and separation from your family is civil, an overnight stay in county jail is criminal. Cf. Deportation civil rather than as a criminal procedure. Harisiades v. Shaughnessy, 342 U.S. 580 (1952). Deportation which tears the person away from all that life is worth living for, is not punishment, Bugajewitz v. Adam, 228 U.S. 585 (1913). Indefinite detention for the sole purpose of facilitating the deportation, also not punishment. Demore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510 (2003).
OK, so to repeat, criminal means a crime was prosecuted, so you get an attorney for you. Immigration means civil, so you don’t get an attorney unless you bring one. INA Sec. 292. [8 U.S.C. 1362]
Now, some immigration violations ALSO violate a criminal statute (transportation of aliens resulting in death, because causing death is almost always criminal in some way) and citizens AND immigrants can be prosecuted in Federal court for it. Again, because it is criminal, not civil. ICE has almost no authority over citizens, because it is concerned with immigrants. Exceptions are narrow, and specific.

So, is COindependent, the author of this quoted comment, willing to learn that violating our immigration laws is generally a civil matter, not criminal? One can only hope.

Posted by HowardHudson | Report as abusive

One other fact-based comment for everyone who says immigrants cost us money:

[E]conomists and demographers have determined that:

Immigrants are helping to keep the Social Security trust fund solvent for the next wave of retirees, and will contribute $611 billion to Social Security coffers over the next 75 years. [the independent National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP)
Legal immigrants use social support programs like welfare, food stamps and Medicaid at the same rate – or less – than native-born Americans.  /immigrants-and-welfare
Immigrants get less in Social Security and Medicare benefits than their native-born American counterparts. Ibid
Immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented currently living here, would increase U.S. GDP by $1.5 trillion over ten years. Etc.

Read more: an-williams/283589-opinion-dispensing-wi th-a-new-dagger-against-immigration-refo rm

Posted by HowardHudson | Report as abusive

Two things: (1) why not release the CITIZENS and LEGAL immigrants who are jailed for non-violent, minor offenses (minor traffic violations, etc.)? And (2) build tent cities that save the taxpayers millions of dollars?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

Nature has not yet rescinded the law of supply and demand.

The plain fact is that immigration into any modern country has two serious, lethal effects on the native-born citizens:

1. Immigration sharply drives down wage rates.
2. Immigration sharply drives up housing costs (apartment rental rates).

Thus employers and landlords benefit from immigration.

Thus common workers are greatly harmed by immigration.

Today in America, apartment rental rates are skyrocketing. I’ve lived in the same apartment building about 8 years. When I moved in it was mostly native-born Americans.

I’ve watched it change. Today it is about 60% foreign-born people. There is now a waiting list to move in. More and more foreigners every day.

The rental rates go up, and up and up. The large company that owns it greatly benefits from immigration, and of course gives great political support for further immigration.

But the native-born Americans, working class, already in financial straits, see their rents go up and up and up. Often they go from an apartment to being homeless.

The immigrants, coming from poverty, squalor and violent crime in Latin America or India, end up causing the native-born American working class to fall into squalor and destitution in America.

Immigration is a giant crime against the American working class, while the wealthy reap more profits.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

@ Howard. My error and I acknowledge your clarification.

However, it is important to note that I was taking exception to the author’s position (the a false argument) that we should focus on the costs of enforcement versus the actions of those who enter this country without following the defined process.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive


Consider there are 7 billion people in the world, and it is becoming very, very crowded.

Largest Countries ranked by population
1. China 1.3 billion people
2. India 1.2 billion people
3. United States 315 million
4. Indonesia 237 million
5. Brazil 193 million
6. Pakistan 182 million
7. Nigeria 166 million
8. Bangladesh 152 million
9. Russia 143 million
10.Japan 127 million
11.Mexico 116 million
12.Phillipines 92 million ntries_by_population

If, as you suggest, immigration is a wonderful thing, and pays for itself, why do all other advanced nations in the world forbid substantial immigration?

And, using your logic, would America not benefit if we simply adopted a policy that allowed every slum in India, Pakistan and Mexico to move to America and be given automatic citizenship?


Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive


It seems you prefer to present half-truths over whole truths.

Whether the “offense” be civil or criminal, misdemeanor or felony, the actions of alien fence-jumpers are conscious, premeditated, and clearly contrary to the desires of the legal residents of these United States and applicable rules and regulations of the “immigration process”. So the hairs you would split mean nothing.

It is today well documented that a considerable majority of “we, the people do NOT want our “representatives” to welcome these invaders with open arms. We believe to lavish upon them and their endless progeny wholly undeserved and unearned citizenship and other benefits will only encourage even more of them to come.

It is also quite disingenuious of you to intentionally and routinely muddle the process of legal immigration and legal immigrants with our present and ever-increasing problem with illegal immigration and illegal aliens. These are only the “same” to racists (who don’t want ANY of them) and liberals/progressives (who see in them a permanent elective advantage for their DEAD-END political and economic agenda.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I believe the conditions of these detension facilities should be improved. Everyone, even illegal immigrants, have the right to humane living conditions. The detainees should be allotted time outside for fresh air and sunlight, as well as the ability to visit with loved ones. The time period for their detetion can be months or even years. In order to save tax dollars, reform is necessary to shorten the detention period and speed up the appeal process. With this being said, I certianly believe that the detention of illegal immigrants is just and necessary. Each time an illegal citizen is caught on American soil, he or she should be detained and punished. Living in the United States without proper citizenship is illegal, and illegal activities are punishable by law. And by law, the government is allowed to hold citizens in custody until their punishment is determined in court. Reitterating what many of you have stated, illegal is illegal. Needless to say, illegal immigration is negatively impacting our country. The quality of life in southern border states is being greatly undermined by illegal activity along the border. The influence of drug cartels and violence have caused towns to vacate or made it mandatory to be armed with a gun at all times. Additionally, illegal immigrants are more often than not freeloading off our social, economic, and medical benefits rather than contributing to society. The burden of these illegal immigrants is being felt by tax-payers. Illegal immigration is a huge problem. How are we going to dissuade people from breaking the law and crossing the boarder if there are no consequences? I am open for suggestions, but I see no alternative solution other than punishing bad behavior. We need to enforce the laws in place or immigration will grow into an even bigger problem than it has already become. The release of hundreds of immigrants from detention facilities across America is sending current and future illegal immigrants the wrong message, the message that we are ok with them disrespecting our laws and homeland.

Posted by psudeliberatorr | Report as abusive

While it is obvious that unlocking detention facilities will save money, I think the bigger issue is the message the American government is sending to current and future illegal immigrants. The governement is esencially saying that thay are unwilling to invest the necessary resources to secure the border. If laws will not be enforced, then what is to stop aliens from entering our country? I do not see an alternative way.

Posted by psudeliberatorr | Report as abusive

We cannot keep immigrating our country into collapse:

“The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people, but to poor ideology and land-use management is sophistic.” Harvard scholar and biologist E.O. Wilson

“Unlimited population growth cannot be sustained; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources. No species can overrun the carrying capacity of a finite land mass. This Law cannot be repealed and is not negotiable.” Dr. Albert Bartlett, , University of Colorado, USA.

“Most Western elites continue urging the wealthy West not to stem the migrant tide [that adds 80 million net gain annually to the planet], but to absorb our global brothers and sisters until their horrid ordeal has been endured and shared by all—ten billion humans packed onto an ecologically devastated planet.” Dr. Otis Graham, Unguarded Gates

Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0 Saving Civilization said, “The world has set in motion environmental trends that are threatening civilization itself. We are crossing environmental thresholds and violating deadlines set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.”

“Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal.” David Suzuki

“Growth for the sake of yet more growth is a bankrupt and eventually lethal idea. CASSE is the David fighting the Goliath of endless expansion, and we know how that one turned out.” ~ David Orr

The green revolution was instigated as a result of the efforts of Norman Borlaug, who, while accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1970, said: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

“The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime….so I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves move toward depletion, we will be left with an enormous population…that the ecology of the earth will not support. The journey back toward non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hyper growth was simply a side-effect of the oil age. It was a condition, not a problem with a solution. That is what happened and we are stuck with it.” James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency

Posted by Wooldridge | Report as abusive

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