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Why Immigration Detention is Not the Answer

August 25, 2010

Jacqueline Esposito is the Director of Policy & Advocacy for the Detention Watch Network

This year the government will detain close to 400,000 men, women and children in prison-like conditions at a cost of more than $1.7 billion to taxpayers, despite the availability of far more cost-effective alternatives.  Under the current immigration system, most immigrants are incarcerated for months or even years in more than 200 local and state jails and prisons.  The remaining individuals are held in corporate- or federally-owned penal institutions.  People held in immigration detention are awaiting a decision on their immigration claims, or are awaiting deportation.   They are not serving criminal sentences.  Despite this fact, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, the Department of Homeland Security agency which oversees detention and deportation) confines victims of human trafficking, asylum seekers, refugees, pregnant women and the gravely ill to jail cells where they are forced to wear prison uniforms and at times, shackles, have little to no contact with their loved ones, and in far too many cases are subjected to solitary confinement.

Under current law, ICE has the discretion to exercise its own judgment on whether a person should be detained, released, or placed into a more supervised program.  Historically, ICE has not exercised this discretion, resulting in the needless detention of hundreds of thousands of people and costing taxpayers billions of dollars when there are proven alternatives.

Detention Watch Network and Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic today issued a new report calling on the Obama Administration to reduce the unprecedented rate of immigration detention by adopting cost-effective, community-based alternatives known as “ATDs” that rely on collaboration between ICE and local non-governmental organizations.

According to the report, pilot programs in the United States and abroad have demonstrated
that community-based alternatives to detention are cheaper, more effective, and more humane than the current U.S. immigration detention system.  The programs provide for the release of individuals from detention and ensure compliance with immigration procedures through a mixture of traditional caseworker monitoring and referral to
community services.

A key component to the success of ATDs is the involvement of community-based organizations.  Local community-based organizations with strong ties in the immigrant and faith communities have expertise and training in meeting the legal, cultural, and psychological needs of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They have experience in helping immigrants understand the legal process and can play a critical role in ensuring that participants understand the responsibilities they have to meet regarding their immigration cases.  In instances where an immigrant does not have family ties, the community-based organization can locate shelters and faith-based or community programs willing to house and assist the individual.

The report describes a program in New Jersey where a pastor from the Reformed Church of Highland Park has negotiated with ICE to release church members facing deportation proceedings into his care, in lieu of detention. To date, at least 70 men have been allowed to stay in the community and support their families while they prepare their immigration cases. Not a single one of these men has missed a court appearance.

By contrast, the report illustrates a government-run detention system in crisis.  The truth is that the U.S. government locks up immigrants in remote areas far from their families with little to no access to lawyers (unlike in the criminal justice system, individuals in immigration proceedings have no right to government-appointed counsel), and deports them with minimal due process protections.   Conditions of confinement are often substandard:  detained immigrants are frequently denied necessary medical care, lack proper nutrition, have limited access to functioning telephones, and are often subjected to mistreatment and neglect by guards.  Since 2003, a reported 113 people have died in ICE custody.  The most recent death was an apparent suicide.  According to a report published by the Washington Post, the action or inaction of facility staff may have contributed to at least 30 of those deaths.

It is neither fiscally sustainable nor humane to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year.  The creation of robust alternatives to detention programs that focus on case management through partnerships with community-based organizations will help to reduce the number of individuals in detention and ensure that individuals with strong ties to the community are not needlessly separated from their families and loved ones.

Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a coalition of community, faith-based, immigrant and human rights service and advocacy organizations and concerned individuals working to reform the immigration detention and deportation system so that all who come to our shores receive
fair and humane treatment.

The Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (IRC) at Stanford Law School is committed to protecting the human rights of all non-citizens regardless of immigration status. The Clinic represents individual immigrants in removal (deportation) proceedings and also conducts multi-modal advocacy-including legislative and administrative advocacy, public education, local advocacy, and impact litigation-in partnership with immigrants’ rights organizations like DWN.

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