Imagine if Congress mandated that an arbitrary number of jail cells be filled with prisoners — regardless of the crime rate. Authorities would be required to incarcerate people, no matter the circumstances or the affront to human rights. That’s basically the state of immigration detention in the United States.
Thanks to a line in the appropriations bill that finances the Department of Homeland Security, 34,000 beds must be available in immigration detention facilities regardless of the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. or the rate, or nature, of crimes they commit. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency interprets the mandate as a requirement to keep “a yearly average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals,” former ICE Director John Morton told a congressional panel in March.
As the number of beds has increased — from 19,702 in 2001 to 34,000 in 2012 — the number of noncitizens detained has kept pace, at a cost of approximately $120 a day for each prisoner. This is what happens when public policy is written in reverse, mandating outcomes without regard to inputs.
Some detained noncitizens are violent criminals who need to be locked up. Others are mothers or fathers who have committed traffic violations. Their forced separation from families and jobs undermines both social cohesion and the economy — at taxpayer expense.
Few of these people are flight risks. Undocumented immigrants appear for their administrative hearings more than 90 percent of the time, according to Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. They comply with final orders 84 percent of the time. Yet ICE detains more than 400,000 immigrants in more than 250 jails and other facilities at an annual cost of $2 billion.
Partly because punitive actions against undocumented immigrants are popular in some congressional districts and partly because a more rational approach would disrupt cherished revenue streams. Private-prison lobbies have pushed to keep lucrative detention centers open. And local officials have “treated the increase in bed mandates as a source of revenue for counties and a job creator for their region,” according to a 2013 National Immigration Forum report.
Bloomberg News has reported on ICE’s efforts to increase efficiency by moving immigrants held in Alabama to a facility in Georgia. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, threatened to block ICE requests to the committee if Alabama’s detention beds were not retained.
Shelby’s parochialism isn’t an anomaly. In its 2014 budget, the White House requested $120 million less for immigration detention beds than House Republicans want. An amendment sponsored by Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch and Bill Foster sought to strike the detention mandate from the Homeland Security appropriation bill altogether. Their amendment failed in June on a largely partisan vote.
Many alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, curfews and home visits, cost no more than a few dollars a day. ICE has reported that, as of May 2011, 41 percent of its detainees were classified as Level 1, the lowest-risk group. Yet ICE lacks the discretion to shift its policy.
Americans can disagree about the nature of immigration and the best ways to reform the system (or not). But wasting money on an arbitrary prison mandate serves no one’s interest. It’s hard to see how the micromanagement by Congress, and the waste of taxpayer funds, will be reversed for 2014; the House appropriations process has been a shambles. Next spring, Deutch and Foster should reintroduce their amendment. And the House should show the good sense to put authority — and discretion — for detaining immigrants where it belongs.