Immigrant Detention Harms Families, the Community and Taxpayers

Immigrant Detention Harms Families,  the Community and Taxpayers

It was recently reported that Samira, an Afghani mother of two who is confined in the Karnes Family Detention Center with her children, tried to commit suicide.  She said she did it to free her children from detention.   

The U.S. detains between 380,000 – 442,000 people per year. This includes people with family and community ties in this country,  asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking who are imprisoned in immigrant detention centers for days, months and years.  Detentions break up families, harm immigrant communities,  forfeit immigrant contributions to the economy and cost taxpayers a huge amount of money. The average daily expenditure for immigrant detention for taxpayers is reported to be $127 per person per day. This figure increases to $266 per person per day for family detention. Ironically, the undocumented , who also pay taxes, are paying to detain their friends and family members.  U.S. taxpayers spend about $2 billion per year on detention.

But money is only one concern regarding immigrant detention. Basic human rights are also a concern.  Mistreatment of detainees has been well-documented.   For example,  CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement) analyzed data obtained from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) through the Freedom of Information Act.  The data showed that OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse between May 2014 and July 2016, but only 2.4% were investigated.  OIG referred 92.6% of the complaints to the relevant agency (e.g.Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE) without requesting any followup.   Unsurprisingly, ICE routinely finds these allegations of sexual abuse “unsubstantiated”, handing the detainee a sheeet that begins, “Thank you for reporting the sexual abuse/assault allegation”.   The five detention centers with the most complaints of sexual abuse are all privately run,with the Houston Processing Center (run by Core Civic, a private prison corporation) in 2nd place.

We often hear about the horrors of human trafficking, but the GEO Group, another private prison corporation,  has been hit with a lawsuit arguing that their santitation policy violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.   GEO has been using housekeeping crews comprised of detaineees who were paid $1 per day.  Those refusing to work were punished by various sanctions, including solitary confinement.

ICE insists that detention is the only way to ensure removal of immigrants.  However, the real problem is that the docket for non-detained  people is severely backlogged, so it may take years to resolve their cases. The solution is not to increase the number of these costly detention beds, but better resources for the immigration courts to reduce the backlog of cases for those not in detention.

ICE should place people in the least restrictive situation necessary to ensure that they show up to court. ICE could screen each person, using an already existing assessment tool. Anyone who is not a major flight risk (and most are not) could be monitored by community support programs (there have been successful pilot programs that ICE chooses not to fund), phone-in monitoring, check-ins at specific intervals with ICE, home visits, non-monetary bonds,  or ankle monitoring in extreme cases. ICE should re-screen every person in detention to determine if less restrictive monitoring is feasible. This would save millions of taxpayer dollars, reunite families, improve the well-being of children involved and lift many affected families out of poverty by returning a breadwinner or caregiver to them.  Between 2011-2013, ICE’s own Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) had a 95% show rate for participants.

So, why do we continue to imprison immigrants in record numbers and build more detention facilities? Immigrant detention is fueled by political rhetoric which results in unfounded fears and a lack of understanding of immigrant contributions to the economy and culture of the United States.  We also need to follow the money.  Approximately 70% of detainees are housed in private, for-profit prisons.  The two largest, for-profit prison corporations are the GEO Group and Core Civic (previously called the Corrections Corporation of America or CCA).   These companies have spent $35 million in lobbying and campaign contributions since 1989. Their lobbying strategies have paid off big time.  Two years ago the Obama Administration signed a billion dollar deal to build a detention center in Dilley, Texas, to warehouse women and children.  Recently, the day after Obama instituted a policy to phase out private prisons, the GEO Group donated $100,000 to a Trump PAC, and GEO and Core Civic donated $250,000 each to Trump’s inauguration. Significantly, Trump’s new immigration orders state that all undocumented people caught at the border must be held in detention facilities. As a result, the GEO Group’s stock price quickly gained 98.2%,  and Core Civic stock price is up $138%.

We can save taxpayer dollars, strengthen our economy, protect basic human rights, reunite families and strengthen our communities by rapidly phasing out immigrant detention facilities except where they are absolutely necessary for people who are a danger to society.   That is being “smart”  on immigration reform.

Hope Sanford and David Atwood,