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Immigration detention system in urgent need of reform

July 07, 2009 - Posted by Ali Noorani

This post was written by Geoff Ward


Photo by Steven Fernandez

It is criminal how many immigrants are placed in some form of detention because our immigration laws are so dysfunctional and divorced from reality.  If there were legal channels for immigrants to use and a way for immigrants already here to get legal – two of the goals of comprehensive immigration reform – we would greatly reduce the cost in dollars and human lives we are wasting on detention.  We should – and will – reform our legal immigration system, but even after we put our system back on a legal footing, there will continue to be a need for immigration enforcement and therefore immigration detention.  But the U.S. immigration detention system is being poorly run at the expense of detainees and U.S. taxpayers and is in need of serious repair.


Since January 2009, at least 11 reports have been published that detail the abuses and poor conditions within the detention system and across broad spectrums of the immigrant detainee population.  These reports demonstrate that while the costs of detention are increasing, conditions are deteriorating and people are suffering.  Each dollar spent is buying less and less, resulting in a bad system perpetuated on the backs of U.S. taxpayers.  The current situation is untenable and workable solutions are needed immediately to stem such patent waste and abuse.


The U.S. detention system is operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for enforcing U.S. customs and immigration laws.  ICE currently detains more than 33,000 individuals in over 500 facilities on any given night.  The costs of maintaining such a large detention capacity are unsurprisingly significant.  U.S. taxpayers are paying approximately $4.7 million per night, over $1.7 billion per year, to detain so many individuals and families.  These costs are especially glaring when some alternatives to detention, such as electronic ankle monitoring, cost as little as $12 per day and still yield an estimated 93 percent appearance rate before the immigration courts.  Although this discrepancy could be rationalized if the system functioned properly, like so many other pieces of the immigration framework, the detention system is plagued by mismanagement, neglect, and abuse. 


A recent New York Times editorial on the immigration detention system describes the steps that advocates have taken to compel DHS and ICE to initiate detention reforms and how they have been met with serious resistance:


In January 2007, two immigrant advocacy groups and two former immigration detainees petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to take a simple but important step. They asked it to establish legally enforceable standards for the detention system, a fast-growing network of federal centers, county jails and private prisons that has been plagued by medical neglect and abuse.


The petition was ignored, even after reports of several preventable deaths. This was typical for the Bush administration, whose war on illegal immigration was notable for its slipshod cruelty. After waiting more than a year, the advocates sued.


…On June 25 [2009], a federal district judge in Manhattan declared that the now two-and-a-half-year delay in answering the petition was “unreasonable as a matter of law,” and ordered the department to respond within 30 days. The judge, Denny Chin, took note of the plaintiffs’ assertion that “detainees in D.H.S. custody are dying as a result of the substandard conditions.” He called the department’s continued silence “egregious.”

Justice Ignored, July 5, 2009


With a new administration that purports to be both more attentive to the needs of immigrant detainees and receptive to suggestions on how to reform the current detention system, there should be no better time than now to make the needed changes.  However, action is still slow to materialize.  Although Secretary Napolitano has promised a comprehensive review of the detention system, DHS has yet to announce a change of policy or respond to the 2007 petition seeking enforceable detention standards.  Hopefully, this most recent delay indicates that DHS and ICE are in the process of implementing enforceable standards in all of the jails they use to hold immigrant detainees.  In the meantime, immigrant detainees and their loved ones are still stuck in the current broken system while these agencies continue to dither.


A broad, bi-partisan consensus agrees that the U.S. immigration system is broken and in need of serious repairs.  The immigration detention system is but one glaring, dysfunctional piece of the broader U.S. immigration system.  A comprehensive approach is needed to fully address each problem.  While the Administration should be commended for its focus on improving the treatment of detainees, as well as its promises of future reform, people are suffering right now. That’s why its so important and so urgent for the Obama Administration and Congress to provide workable solutions to our deteriorating detention and immigration system.


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