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Home / Press Release / Congress Urged to Reform Detention System in Immigration Legislation
March 14, 2013

Congress Urged to Reform Detention System in Immigration Legislation

Washington, D.C. – In a statement submitted today to the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Human Rights First urged Congress to facilitate a transformation of U.S. detention policy and practice via the appropriations process and any immigration legislation, by bringing U.S. practice into line with human rights standards and incorporating best practices from the criminal justice system.

Human Rights First notes that every year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains about 400,000 immigrants – including thousands of asylum seekers – in a sprawling system of jails and jail-like facilities across the country at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion, and that the costs of immigration detention have risen dramatically over the past 15 years.

Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs, meanwhile, cost 30 cents to $14 per day per person, as compared to $164 per day per person for detention. “Several successful ATD programs have been tested in the United States over the years,” noted the statement. “These programs documented high appearance rates, and saved the government funds by allowing for the release of individuals from more costly immigration detention.”

In the criminal justice system, individuals whose cases are pending – like the cases of immigration detainees – are routinely put on supervised release programs, or released on bail or recognizance, following individualized assessments of the need to detain. The statement noted that “pretrial services and other alternatives to detention have been endorsed as cost-savers by the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, Heritage Foundation, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Pretrial Justice Institute, International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Conference of Chief Justices.”

Today’s statement also notes that in 2009, DHS and ICE committed to shift the immigration detention system away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities. This promise responded to reports and recommendations from bipartisan groups including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Constitution Project’s  Liberty and Security Committee, and the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, as well as a report prepared by the DHS Special Advisor, who had run two state prison systems and currently serves as the New York City Commissioner of Correction. While some progress has been made, ICE continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its daily detention population in jail-like facilities, and 50 percent of all detained immigrants are held in actual jails.

“To bring its practices into line with human rights standards and incorporate best practices from the criminal justice system, ICE should conduct an individualized assessment of the need to detain, and when detention is necessary, only use facilities with conditions that provide a more normalized environment,” noted today’s statement. “Jails or jail-like facilities are inappropriate for civil immigration law detainees, and should not be used by ICE.”

Steps Congress should take to implement an effective system of alternatives to detention and reduce unnecessary detention costs include:

  • Direct DHS to use alternatives in place of more costly detention when it is not necessary, rather than as a supplement to existing levels of detention.
  • Eliminate language referencing a specific number of detention beds in DHS appropriations bills.
  • Allow ICE to exercise its executive authority to allocate the enforcement and removal budget as needed between detention and more cost-effective alternatives to detention.
  • Prevent unnecessary detention by requiring and overseeing ICE implementation of a validated dynamic risk classification tool nationwide.
  • Reduce costs by recognizing that restrictive measures can constitute custody.
  • Support steps to reduce delays in the immigration court system.
  • Require the establishment of government-funded community-based models and case management in nationwide system of alternatives to detention.

In fall 2012, Human Rights First convened a series of public events across the country, “Dialogues on Detention: Applying Lessons from Criminal Justice Reform to the Immigration Detention System,”‖ to identify best practices in criminal justice that could help bring needed improvements to U.S. immigration detention policy and practice. This series will culminate with a day-long conference in Washington, D.C. on April 8, which is free and open to the public.