shutterstock_3321033Along with every other government agency, on March 1, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had to begin making mandatory cuts to their budget as a result of sequestration.  ICE’s choice to shift some of its detainees from expensive detention facilities to non-detention alternatives was questioned yesterday by Members of Congress, but more importantly the decision demonstrates that alternatives to detention are a feasible choice—regardless of sequestration.

According to testimony from ICE Director John Morton,  ICE released about 2,000 immigrants from detention facilities – but not removal proceedings – and placed them in non-detention alternatives during the end of February and early March. Morton explained during a congressional hearing yesterday that the decision to move the immigrants to alternative forms of detention were for “solely budgetary reasons.” “We were trying to live within the budget that Congress had provided us,” Morton told lawmakers. “This was not a White House call. I take full responsibility.”

ICE now maintains 34,000 beds to house immigration detainees, compared to 18,000 beds in 2004. In 2012, officials detained a record 430,000 immigrants  with about 25,000 immigrants released from detention to alternative forms of monitoring. It costs between $122 and $164 each day to detain a person, while alternative methods, like ankle monitors and parole, cost less than $14 a day. Along with the ever-increasing number of immigrants who are detained, ICE’s budget has ballooned from $504 million in 2005 to $2 billion today.

As ICE’s budget increases in order to cover the cost of detaining more immigrants, alternative forms of monitoring could add up to significant savings. For example, if ICE moved every non-criminal immigrant detainee to alternatives to detention, the government could save up to $1.6 billion a year. And the department does more than only detain immigrants. Morton told a House subcommittee yesterday that his agency also investigates drug smugglers, human trafficking, and child pornography, so by cutting its budget through releasing immigrant detainees, he can avoid having to limit ICE agents’ work in other areas. If Congress requires he maintain and fill 34,000 beds, Morton said, he would then be forced to limit domestic investigations.

Morton said during the hearing yesterday that 70 percent of the immigrants released had no criminal records and that the other 30 percent were mostly minor crimes. But if those who were released are such low priority, some immigration advocates questioned why they weren’t released sooner. “ICE’s stated justification for the releases—that it had determined these individuals could be ‘placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release’—raises a fundamental question, posed among others by Secretary Janet Napolitano herself: why were these individuals detained in the first place?” the ACLU wrote in a statement ahead of House hearing.

The sequestration-forced-cuts pushed ICE to use alternative forms of detention for more than 2,000 people, but it highlights changes that could be made to the immigration detention system to both limit the enormous spending on immigration detention and to keep immigrants facing removal proceedings with their families instead of holding them for months or years in detention facilities.

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