Every year the U.S. government locks up thousands of non-citizens in a prison system few Americans know about—the immigration detention system. Though immigration detention is termed “civil” rather than criminal, in practice it is no different from criminal detention and is rife with abuse and neglect. The pandemic has made it more dangerous than ever to be locked in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center.

It’s time to rethink immigration detention. Immigration detention is not only contrary to American values, it’s unnecessary. It is premised on the false notion that non-citizens will not attend immigration hearings unless they are locked up. But there are alternatives to detention that ensure immigrants can live in our communities—instead of behind bars.

Current Alternative to Detention Programs

The U.S. government has long had the option to release non-citizens into the community as they await their immigration court cases.  But it is crucial people are not subjected to intrusive and painful surveillance when they are released. Instead, the government should provide people with legal and social services supports. Doing this is not only the most humane alternative to detention—but one that has been proven over and over to work.

Currently, ICE operates an Alternative to Detention program called the “Intensive Supervision Appearance Program III,” which is a supervision program for individuals whom ICE has determined it can release from custody.

In litigation involving the detention of 18 year-olds, ICE leadership lauded the ISAP program as “an effective flight risk mitigation tool” that “has demonstrated great success in improving compliance rates for those [immigrants] assigned to the program.” But this system’s reliance on ankle monitors is physically painful—as well as unnecessary.

One of the key components of the ISAP program are ankle monitors that utilize a GPS technology. People who are forced to wear these bulky surveillance devices cannot remove them, and they can be painful and intrusive. ICE could instead require telephonic reporting or reporting via a smartphone app—technology it already has and could use with more frequency.

But ICE can go further than the systems it currently chooses to use. Social services are critical to ensure that people attend immigration hearings.

ICE recently re-started community support programs to ensure humanitarian release. Known as “Extended Case Management Services,” these programs employ case managers who provide intensive community support to migrants with extra vulnerabilities. This includes people who have “suffered significant trauma or who have direct dependents in need.”

Previous ATD Programs With High Success Rates

The Extended Case Management Services program was formerly the ‘Family Case Management Program,’ which had great results. But unlike the Family Case Management Program, which only served five cities, the new program is in 54 locations and far less expensive.

According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, the Family Case Management Program achieved a 99% success compliance rate with ICE check-ins and immigration court appearances. It was also far less expensive than detention.

Access to Counsel Is Key

Having access to legal representation is another crucial way to ensure that people can meaningfully participate in their immigration court hearings. A recent American Immigration Council report found that an astonishing 96% of noncitizens with legal representation attend all their immigration court hearings.  Providing people with legal counsel allows them to fully participate in their hearings—and is much less costly than detention.

A critical component of the success of these community-based programs is partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). ICE’s current contracts are with a subsidiary of the GEO Group, a private prison contractor. By partnering with NGOs, the end goal will be humane treatment of immigrants, not a private company’s bottom line.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put on full display the many health and safety problems that come with incarceration in crowded settings. Now is the time to re-think immigration detention and invest in community-based support systems as true alternatives to detention.