This post describes the purpose of US immigration detention, explains some of the problems that the US government recognizes regarding immigration detention, cites government reports documenting that alternatives to detention are effective, and illustrates how alternatives are considerably cheaper.
For those not familiar with immigration detention, it is operated under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE documents are explicit that immigration detention is not criminal or punitive (). The stated purpose of immigration detention is to hold individuals in order to ensure that they are present for their civil (rather than criminal) immigration hearings. Individuals held in immigration detention are being not detained because they were charged with a crime. Though, individuals are often detained for months and years, they are not serving time or working off a sentence. Instead, individuals are litigating their immigration cases, often times seeking humanitarian relief. The lack of a definite end time for their incarceration is particularly trying psychologically on those detained, especially for those who have bona fide claims of past persecution or legitimate fear or return.
DHS and ICE documents acknowledge that in practice, immigration detention has essentially punitive outcomes (). The US Commission of Civil Rights found that: 1) migrants “detained by ICE in its own and in for-profit prison company-run facilities are treated less than human”, 2) that these “facilities are subjecting detained immigrants to torture-like conditions”, 3) detained individuals are subjected to “torture-like mental pain and suffering”, and 4) some detention center officials and guards “intentionally cause and threaten detainees with physical pain or suffering” . The DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the Otero County Processing Center was particularly problematic , and also determined that ICE inspections do not lead to systemic improvements .
Detaining migrants is costly and unnecessary for achieving the end of ensuring people are present for their immigration hearing. ICE performance metrics demonstrate that existing alternatives to detention are effective because few individuals abscond . Moreover, alternatives to detention are considerably less expensive.
The National Immigration Forum (NIF) reviewed the cost of alternative to detention programs and found that detention alternatives cost between $5-6 per person per day . NIF also observed that over time the average daily cost per detained migrant has dramatically increased, and that a large portion of that average daily cost increase reflects a growing reliance on family detention. Though the incarceration of families is only a portion of the detained population, it costs nearly twice as much per person compared to detaining adult males. Based on data released by ICE, NIF calculates that the average cost to detain a migrant is $208 per day which comes out to $75,920 per person per year. NIF found that in FY2017, moving one person from detention to ADT saves the tax payer $189 per day for a total of $68,985 per person per year. That is a savings of over 90% per individual. With over 40,000 individuals presently in detention, at a cost or more than $3 billion, using alternatives to detention would result in a projected savings of $2.8 billion. Alternatives to detention are 90% cheaper. Since ICE’s own performance metrics show that alternatives to detention are effective, it is clear that detaining migrants is an unnecessary expense.