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Immigrants rights activists protest an arbitrary detention bed quota imposed by Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants at any given time.
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Immigrants rights activists protest an arbitrary detention bed quota imposed by Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants at any given time.

Do so many immigrants need to be detained?

Immigration | A bloated, expensive immigrant detention system is sparking calls for alternatives

In the 9/11 aftermath, U.S. authorities required men from Muslim-majority countries to register with the federal government, eventually cataloging some 85,000 non-citizens. The order left a group of Indonesian Christians wondering what to do: They had fled violence at the hands of Muslim extremists in the late 1990s but didn’t seek legal asylum in America—they came on travel visas and never left.

Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of Reformed Church of Highland Park (N.J.), which oversees an Indonesian congregation, encouraged the men to come forward and explain their story honestly, thinking they would find leniency. Instead, immigration officials denied all of their asylum claims—not on the merits of the cases but because they missed the one-year filing deadline. “We can say with certainty most of them would have won their cases if they’d met the deadline,” Kaper-Dale told me, noting in 2003 more Indonesians arrived knowing about the deadline and are now on their way to citizenship. “It was a technicality.”

In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the apartment complex where most of the immigrants lived, taking three dozen men while their wives and children watched. The raid launched an eight-year saga that has included detentions and deportations but also rays of hope: Thanks to understanding ICE officials, the agency has granted stays of removal to many of the Indonesian Christians and released them under the supervision of Kaper-Dale’s church, meaning they can obtain work permits and jobs. “They’ve never been on the public dole,” he said. “They’re willing to do whatever it takes to work and put food on the table for their families.”

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The federal government spends some $2 billion annually on immigrant detention—which averages to more than $150 per day, per detainee. As Central American migrants continue to flood the Southern border seeking asylum, requiring detention under current law, many advocates and lawmakers are calling for effective alternatives that would save taxpayer dollars, keep fewer people behind bars, and ensure immigrants are not released without supervision into society. Kaper-Dale and others have pointed to the Indonesian community in New Jersey as one example of a productive, cost-effective alternative to the government’s mass immigrant detention policies.

The rationale for detaining non-citizens includes mitigating flight risks and dangerous criminals, but about half of the 400,000 people detained each year do not have a criminal record. Although detention alternatives exist within ICE, including supervised release and electronic monitoring, they are often not used, despite typically costing less than $10 a day.

Electronic monitoring could provide potential embarrassment to immigrants, but several told me it would be well worth the freedom. “I’m willing to have an ankle bracelet or whatever they want,” detainee Jose Quezada told me last month during a visit to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. Quezada, who has numerous immigration violations but said he’s broken no criminal law, said his 10-month detention kept him from operating his lawn care business and forced his wife to sell their rental property.

The core question is whether or not non-violent immigrants will show up for their court dates and other obligations. Evidence suggests they will—with supervision: Kaper-Dale told me the Indonesian Christians had to check in with ICE every three months and never failed to appear. In a 2000 study, Vera Institute of Justice found 91 percent of those granted supervised release appeared at all of their required hearings, and last year The Washington Times reported 96 percent of active participants in an ICE alternative program appeared at their final hearings.

So why isn’t ICE using available alternatives more often? The answer may lie in a 2009 congressional regulation that tied ICE funding to a 33,400 daily “bed mandate.” Congress has since raised the minimum threshold to 34,000, and some Republican lawmakers want to raise it even higher.

“Detention is a deterrent, both in criminal law and the border crossings,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, noting President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion funding request included 6,000 additional detention beds. “If they know they’re going to be detained, it prevents them from coming across.” Carter, a former judge who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, told me he’s open to detention alternatives only if there are properly staffed oversight mechanisms to ensure immigrants don’t disappear into society.

Democrats sought to kill the bed mandate or at least lower it, an idea Obama has twice offered in budget proposals. “We ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not to an arbitrary number,” former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress last year.

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