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via @LIRSorg: Release Shows Dire Need for Alternatives to Immigration Detention

March 6, 2013

Written by Anna Campbell, National Network Coordinator of LIRS’s Access to Justice unit, Reposted from LIRS blog.

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 9.34.58 AMPSTThe whole nation is beginning to feel the pain of deep spending cuts as the judgment day known as the “sequester” becomes a reality. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not exempt.  Last week, federal immigration officials announced the release of hundreds of detained immigrants from centers around the country in preemption of the pending budget cuts.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency charged with enforcing immigration laws,  is currently required by Congress to fill 34,000 detention beds each day with immigrants charged with being deportable, yet ICE has publicly stated that the sequester will hinder its ability to satisfy this detention mandate.  This mandate and the nonsensical results it produces need to go.

ICE’s decision to release a small percentage of those in immigration custody incensed some lawmakers with reputations as staunch immigration foes and was mischaracterized by the media as an extreme measure.  But for LIRS, and many other immigrants’ rights organizations, the move fundamentally validated the important role alternatives to detention can play within our immigrant justice system.  Immigration detention is a civil authority that is not intended to be punitive, but rather is used solely to ensure compliance with immigration adjudications.ICE’s release of hundreds of immigration detainees last week confirms that the agency currently detains some people simply to meet a congressional quota rather than to better secure U.S. communities. DHS has said that they released “low-risk” and “non-criminal” detainees.  This raises a number of questions. What does “low-risk” mean? Why are immigrants being locked up in the first place if their civil immigration case could be processed while they reside in the family and with their children?  If there is a cheaper and more humane mechanism for enforcing immigration law while ensuring individual appearance during deportation proceedings, why wouldn’t it be utilized?

This country needs alternatives to detention to be a part of the immigration reform debate.  More specifically, we need more community-based services as alternatives to continuing to unnecessarily infringe on individuals’ liberties. Alternatives are not only more humane, but also fiscally responsible, which is increasingly important as we repeatedly face austerity measures like the sequester.  Alternatives to detention cost the government significantly less than physical detention and could reduce detention spending by nearly 80%.  LIRS provides community-based services as an alternative to detention via its Community Support Network in seven different parts of the country. These services – legal representation, housing and case management – facilitate rehabilitation from past trauma, expedite long-term integration for individuals who remain in the United States, and encourage compliance with all legal processes.

Finally, while LIRS is pleased that DHS has decided to release individuals whom it in fact does not need to detain, we cannot forget that each of these migrants is still in deportation proceedings.  Each individual faces an imminent threat of being torn away from family members and community, and could be forced to return to a country where they may face persecution and isolation. We also can’t forget that DHS is still required to fill 34,000 beds, with or without funding and with or without need, and this must change. If Washington solves the current budget crisis, will these individuals be re-detained? Will ICE arrest more “low-risk” immigrants just to fill bed space? Is that a responsible way to use federal dollars, if a cheaper if not free alternative is available? We here at LIRS believe it’s high time to utilize effective, more affordable, and more humane alternatives.

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