In recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has taken a lot of heat over questionable detention practices—everything from routine denial of access to loved ones and legal services to detainee death cover-ups and instances of medical negligence and sexual abuse. Although this administration has attempted to overhaul our immigration detention system, some find that changes to date don’t quite go far enough and only hint at the problem. A new report by Detention Watch Network (DWN) argues that the solution is the wide-scale implementation of community-based alternatives to detention that are cost-saving, effective and more humane.

Community-Based Alternatives to Immigration Detention, a new policy brief by DWN, makes the case for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement alternatives to immigration detention (ATDs) as soon as possible. While ICE currently operates a pilot ATD system, the report recommends that it should be expanded nationwide (currently, only 16,000 immigrants are enrolled in ATD programs). In addition, DWN calls for other changes:

  • ICE should use a risk assessment tool to make individualized custody decisions, and should not be able to detain an individual without articulating why that individual is not suitable for release, parole, bond, or an ATD program.
  • As a default, the risk assessment tool should look to consider detention as a last resort as opposed to a first resort. Detention should only be used when there is a reasonable basis to believe that the individual poses a flight or public safety risk.
  • Remove electronic ankle bracelets from the ATD list. Despite ICE classifying electronic monitoring, such as ankle bracelets, as an ATD, it is not one. These ankle bracelets require up to 3 hours of charging daily, requiring that a person wearing them sit by an outlet for several hours each day. ICE should only use electronic monitoring when it would otherwise detain an individual and proves that no other measure other than detention would ensure an appearance at removal proceedings.
  • When ICE chooses to detain an individual, it should give the detainee a written statement of reasons for their detention.

Immigration detention will cost taxpayers $1.77 billion to detain close to 400,000 immigrants in 2010 alone, much of which could be saved if DHS implemented ATDs nationwide (and DHS has requested $2.6 billion for 2011 detention and removal operations). Each individual in detention costs taxpayers on average $122 per day, while ATD programs can cost as little as $12 per day. The National Immigration Forum estimates that using ATDs could cut program costs in half.

ATDs also reduce immigration court delays—ATDs allow more immigrants to find lawyers, which results in less of them having to represent themselves. With fewer immigrants representing themselves, immigration court judges are not forced to take the time to explain the complexities of navigating the immigration system to each detainee.

Other ATD projects have already shown that community-based ATD programs are very effective in securing appearances for court dates (other programs have shown an effectiveness rate of more than 90%). As DWN explains:

    By ensuring that participants have access to low or no cost support services, such as stable housing, medical care, and legal counsel, these programs increase the likelihood that participants will attend all court dates, be able to participate in the court process in an efficient manner, comply with an order of removal when applicable, or voluntarily depart if it becomes clear that they do not have a viable claim for relief.

It is worth remembering that people in immigration detention are not serving criminal sentences, but awaiting a decision on their immigration claims or awaiting deportation. This population includes torture survivors, asylum seekers, trafficking victims, families with small children, the elderly, individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions, and even lawful permanent residents.

ATDs are more humane than current immigration detention, according to DWN:

    Individuals in detention experience mistreatment and neglect by detention guards; have virtually no ability to access lawyers for help with their immigration cases; wait for months and years in detention because of a clogged and inefficient immigration court system; and face incarceration far away from their families.

ICE should move quickly to implement a system that costs less than current detention, is just as effective, and is much more humane. Community-based ATDs would be cheaper for United States taxpayers, reduce immigration court delays, and allow immigrants a chance to find legal representation, medical care, and spend time with their families as they sort out their immigration issues.

Photo by Still Burning