Lawmakers Questioning Use of Immigration Detention

The House of Representatives recently passed the 2014 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill, and while several disappointing amendments that were attached to the bill passed, one good, pro-human rights one—which would have eliminated the so-called detention “bed mandate”— failed to muster up enough votes.

Co-sponsored by Reps. Deutch (D-FL) and Foster (D-IL), the amendment would have done away with a quota that requires ICE to detain 34,000 immigrants on any given day. While the amendment did not succeed, it received 190 votes, including the support of eight Republicans. The vote reflects a growing discomfort with this arbitrary and fiscally irresponsible approach to the use of immigration detention.

What’s wrong with a bed mandate?

It’s a quota policy that doesn’t make sense, especially when there are more cost-effective  and humane alternatives to detention that could be used. In an April appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, DHS Secretary Napolitano confirmed that immigration authorities should manage their use of detention guided by detention priorities, public safety threats, rather than an “arbitrary” or “artificial” bed number, noting that the President’s budget proposal had asked for “flexibility” in the use of funds, which would facilitate the use of alternatives to detention.

Lawmakers are paying attention. In questions asked during a May House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) agreed with points on the effectiveness and routine use alternatives to detention raised by Julie Myers Wood, former ICE assistant secretary, in an op-ed she recently coauthored with Steve J. Martin, former general counsel to the Texas Prison system. And during the floor debate on the appropriations bill, a number of Representatives, including Reps. Deutch, Foster, Schakowsky (D-IL), Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Price (D-NC), Quigley (D-IL) and Polis (D-CO) spoke out adamantly against the mandate.

As a diverse group of criminal justice and other experts discussed at Human Rights First’s Dialogue on Detention in April, there are effective alternatives to detention, costing as little as 30 cents to $14 per day compared to the staggering costs of $164 per day of an immigration detention beds. Cliff Keenan, director of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia and a federal prosecutor for almost two decades, and Tim Murray, who runs the Pretrial Justice Institute in Washington, made it clear that alternatives can meet the government’s needs and save taxpayer dollars. Later during the event Grover Norquist, an advocate of reform of the immigration and the criminal justice systems and a leading Right on Crime supporter, suggested that successes by criminal justice reformers, including reduced incarceration levels and the increased use of alternatives in states like Texas—should inspire reform in immigration detention practices.

But some Congress members seem intent on increasing the number of immigrants in detention, regardless of whether it is smart migration management policy, fiscally prudent, or consistent with American values. Last week, for example, Representative Gowdy (R-SC) introduced  the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, H.R. 2278,  which would increase the number of detention facilities and the categories of individuals detained in them, potentially without any review of the necessity to detain or whether there might be more suitable alternatives.

Lawmakers are to be commended for seeking to eliminate the kind of quota not found in other law enforcement systems. But still more members of Congress need to support the use of fiscally prudent and effective alternatives, and start voting against costly and unnecessary detention policies that are inconsistent with this country’s values.


Published on June 18, 2013


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