Frontera Fund News

5 Reasons to End Immigration Detention (Plus 5 Alternative Solutions)

Illegal Migrants are placed in holding facilities before they are returned to Mexico.
Photo credit: US Customs and Border Protection

For 13 months, Josue languished in immigration detention, where he was physically and verbally abused, before being deported to Mexico. Thousands more migrants waste away for years in inadequate conditions, at taxpayers’ expense.

The situation has become so dire the New York Times recently called for an end to immigration detention. Here’s why many human rights organizations agree.

1. It’s crazy expensive.
Immigration detention costs $120 to $160 per person per day, totaling about $2 billion a year. The average “alternative to detention” program costs about $6 per person per day.

2. It’s cruel and beneath America’s values.
An investigation by No More Deaths documented a “Culture of Cruelty” in detention facilities. Ten percent of individuals said officials physically abused them. The vast majority were given inadequate food and water. Many were crammed into crowded cells, subjected to extreme temperatures, threatened with death, and forced to listen to songs about people dying in the desert 24 hours a day.

“Immigration detention is deeply traumatizing for individuals,” says Lauren Dasse, executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. “Many of our clients are often [already] victims of severe trauma or persecution… The psychological costs of detention can leave a lasting impact, even on those who ultimately win protection in this country.”

3. It denies individuals due process.
The average detainee waits 599 days for their case to be heard by an immigration judge. In Phoenix, it’s 1,050 days. Part of the problem is that ICE and Customs & Border Protection get about $18.7 billion a year, while immigration courts get $347 million. About 80,000 people work for ICE and CBP, but there are only 260 immigration judges. The result is the current backlog of nearly 442,000 pending cases.

4. It’s especially traumatizing for families.
“There are severe psychological issues with putting children – babies and toddlers – in jail,” says Wendy Feliz, communications director of the American Immigration Council.

Immigration detention can cause children anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal tendencies, and regression in academic achievement and language development. This is on top of the trauma they’ve already endured; many detained mothers and children are fleeing sexual abuse and death threats from gangs that have killed their family members.

In 2009, the U.S. government stopped sending families to the Hutto detention center in Texas after an ACLU lawsuit charged that children were imprisoned in inhumane conditions. There were allegations of sexual abuse against mothers, and children were forced to wear prison uniforms to school. But after the recent rise in families and children seeking refuge from Central America, the government has opened new family detention centers.

5. It’s unnecessary.
The only reason migrants are detained is to ensure they show up for their court date. However, Feliz says, “They’re really not a flight risk. They’re coming here because they want to be here. So they’re not going to leave, and the rates of them showing up to court are very, very high.”

For example, 92 percent of non-detained children turn up at court when they’re represented by lawyers. In 79 percent of cases, migrant children placed in the care of a parent or guardian show up to court.

Photo credit: US Customs and Border Protection

Photo credit: US Customs and Border Protection

5 Alternate Solutions

1. Eliminate the detention bed quota.
Federal law currently requires 34,000 detainee beds to be filled at all times. So even if ICE determines detainees don’t pose a flight risk, they still have to lock them up to fill the quota. Eliminate the quota, and legal decisions can be based on legal merits, not on numbers.

2. Increase the number of immigration judges.
As of 2014, each immigration judge was handling over 1,400 “matters” per year – well over twice as many cases as federal judges. Some immigration judges reported they have an average of seven minutes to decide a case.

If the government increased judges, immigrants with strong claims would get relief quicker and begin working to support their families. Those with no legitimate claim could be sent home without burdening taxpayers with the cost of detaining them for months.

3. Eliminate family detention.
Many legal experts say family detention centers are unlawful, violating the standards for the treatment of children set forth in Flores v. Meese. They’re traumatizing to families, and studies have proven immigrant mothers and children are not flight risks. “There are other ways to handle cases that don’t involve jailing 4-year-olds and their mothers,” Feliz says.

4. Assess individuals’ risk and supervise them accordingly.
Detainees that pose no flight risk or danger to the community could be released on bond or their own recognizance. Those that require more supervision could be assigned a case manager that acts similarly to a parole officer, meeting regularly with their clients to ensure they prepare for and turn up to court. Electronic monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets may be necessary in limited cases.

5. Connect migrants with community-based support.
“The Florence Project advocates for… individuals’ release from detention by connecting detained individuals with community organizations to provide housing, support, and case management,” Dasse says.

Community support and case management gives individuals better access to legal counsel, medical care, social networks and other resources, while providing a level of supervision. It’s the most humane and lawful way of treating refugees and immigrants, and therefore, the most American way.