The U.S. government has long relied on a punitive and outdated detention system to keep immigrants in its custody. Even when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) places people on alternatives to detention, those alternatives are run by for-profit corporations and involve intrusive surveillance through devices like ankle monitors.

New data released this week by the American Immigration Council and the Women’s Refugee Commission reveals that neither detention nor invasive, costly alternatives are necessary.

Instead, there is a breadth of services provided by nonprofit organizations that can support people and help them navigate the U.S. immigration system. The fact sheet draws from an extensive survey launched in November and December 2020 to assess the capacity of community-based organizations to support migrants. The data adds urgency to the call for a new approach toward supporting people through their immigration process.

More than 300 organizations and affiliate offices completed the survey, which asked about the services they provide—including legal, housing, transportation, social, and medical—to help people participate meaningfully in their immigration cases. According to responding organizations, immigration legal services, social assistance, and housing assistance were among the most frequently provided services.

The survey and subsequent analysis help show that there are hundreds of organizations around the country that provide at least some level of support to people in the immigration process. More than two-thirds of the responding organizations said they want to increase their capacity—but said they would need more funding to expand.

Immigration legal help is one of the critical services many organizations provide.

Several questions asked about organizations’ ability to provide legal services to individuals and families.

62% of responding organizations provide some form of short-term immigration legal services, such as Know Your Rights presentations or accompaniment to ICE check-ins. About 46% of organizations reported that they provide full representation in immigration cases and 51% provide referrals to other legal service providers.

Access to counsel is critical and increases the likelihood that individuals will participate in their court hearings and be able to obtain immigration relief. A recent report underscores the importance of legal counsel: 96% of non-detained immigrants show up to court hearings when they have legal representation.

Organizations also provided or gave referrals to other direct, critical services. More than a third of the organizations indicated that they provide some level of local transportation services—including assistance getting to and from court hearings and asylum interviews—and help with navigating local transit. About 20% of organizations provide for or pay for long-distance (defined as more than an hour distance) transportation.

About 42% of the organizations provide some type of housing assistance, including provision of on-site housing and referrals to other organizations that can assist with housing.

The survey found that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the need for many services.

About 60% of respondents reported that they have seen an increase in the need for legal services due to the pandemic; around 31% said that the pandemic did not impact the need for legal services.

An overwhelming majority—80 to 90%—of responding organizations reported an increase in need for medical and mental health services since the pandemic began.

Many organizations would accept a wide range of government funding.

The survey inquired about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on funding streams and whether organizations would consider potential funding from a variety of different sources.

About 75% of responding organizations indicated that they would be open to different sources of funding, including 87% reporting that they would consider state or local government funding.

Most organizations said ICE was their least favorable source of funding. Only 30% of responding organizations indicated they would accept ICE funding for the purposes of providing support services. Another 34% would consider ICE funding for Know Your Rights presentations.

Rather than investing further in a system of mass incarceration which is shown to be costly and harmful, the government should instead invest in organizations that are trusted by communities and that have experience providing a range of support services to migrants.

Organizations pointed to the importance of more collaboration between service providers.

Many of the responding organizations shared anecdotally the desire and need for more collaboration. Specifically, several organizations noted that improved access to community support services technology and client-centered technology is another key consideration in expansion.

It is time for a new approach to supporting people navigating the U.S. immigration system.

The range of support provided by trusted nonprofit organizations stands in stark contrast to the harmful immigration detention system. Volumes of evidence accumulated over the years demonstrate that detention is inhumane and costly. The need for a new approach is long overdue.  It is time for the government to invest in supportive community-based services rather than the punitive, abusive detention system.