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June 4, 2014 at 6:04 AM

Consider alternatives to locking up immigrants in ICE detention centers

Wednesday’s editorial in The Seattle Times pushes for increased oversight of U.S. Immigration and Enforcement’s Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats.

Under the status quo system — which includes an odd mandate that 34,000 detention beds are filled every night at a cost of nearly $2 billion to taxpayers (The Center for American Progress has produced several informative graphics, including the two below.)  — private prison contractors are guaranteed business.

Infographic by Center for American Progress

Infographic by Center for American Progress

Infographic by Center for American Progress

Infographic by Center for American Progress

As The Atlantic and many other news organizations have reported in recent years, private contractors such as The GEO Group are making a killing at taxpayers’ expense. Not only are they profiting off crowded federal detention centers (which have doubled in occupancy over the last several years), numerous stories suggest they are protecting their profit margins by spending big bucks on lobbying.

As of June 2, local ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz reported that 1,315 detainees are in the Northwest Detention Center. Those inside who await possible deportation are not current criminal offenders. These are people who might have overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally and got caught during one of ICE’s random enforcements. See the graphic below to get a sense of how long detainees are held.

Infographic by the Center for American Progress

Infographic by the Center for American Progress

What’s the cost to taxpayers? Munoz wrote in an email that ICE’s current contract guarantees GEO is paid a daily minimum of $100.65 to operate at least 1,181 beds. Each additional bed is provided at a discounted rate of $62.52. There’s not much incentive to keep the numbers down.

Is this the best use of taxpayer dollars? Or the most humane way to treat immigrants caught for nonviolent offenses?

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, doesn’t think so. The congressman recently toured the Tacoma facility and was none too happy with the conditions he witnessed. He and U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, and Rick Larsen, D-Everett, are co-sponsoring a bill that would provide increased oversight of detention centers and independent audits. The measure also suggests getting rid of the 34,000 bed mandate and encourages ICE to look at alternatives to detention.

“It is critical that we explore more Alternatives to Detention (ATDs). ATDs provide for a supervision strategy that is more humane than detainment in detention facilities for vulnerable populations such as those with medical needs and pregnant women,” Smith said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “Additionally, ATDs would be much less expensive than the millions we spend each year operating detention centers. By saving money and being more humane, ATDs are a win-win.”

Below is a list of several proposed ideas that would be more cost-effective for taxpayers and that allow detainees to remain with their families as they await hearings on their legal status:

  • Home detention or ankle bracelets. In a May 31 story, The Los Angeles Times reported that putting tracking devices on a detainee and requiring that individual to check in twice a week with parole officers costs $8 a day, as opposed to $118 to house him in a detention center in the Mojave Desert.
  • Community-based support programs. The Vera Institute of Justice and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have run various pilot programs over the years showing that asylum seekers allowed to remain in their communities with access to housing, food, medical care and case-management services cost less than if they were kept in detention. In addition, the vast majority of participants (up to 96 percent in one study) appeared at their required hearings.
  • Public defender system. Providing poor immigrants with legal representation (which they are currently not entitled to) could lead to immediate savings for taxpayers and reduced time in detention centers, according to a May 29 story in The New York Times. The report tracks the results of a new study by the New York City Bar Association and a pilot public defender program underway in Manhattan called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. Reporter Kirk Semple writes, “The release of detainees would create other economic benefits, the study says. The immigrants would be able to resume caring for dependents who might otherwise be forced to rely on government-funded foster care, and they would be able to return to work and resume paying taxes.”

This debate comes at a good time. ICE is opening up bidding this summer for its contract to run the Northwest Detention Center after GEO’s agreement expires in October. (The Seattle Globalist offers an excellent look at how that process might work in a June 2 story.)

On May 29, DelBene questioned U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about detention center conditions and brought up a recent report by The New York Times, which uncovered details about an antiquated federal law that pays some immigrant detainees a mere $1 a day for their labor. In his response, Johnson said the program is voluntary. That’s hardly an excuse. The federal government should not be exploiting a vulnerable population of detainees who await civil hearings and have not been convicted of crimes.

Watch a video of the exchange below, provided by DelBene’s congressional staff. (Scroll to about 3:30)

Comments | Topics: adam smith, cout, detention center

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