Controversial quota drives immigration detention boom
Immigration lawyer Andres Perez leaves the South Texas Detention Facility, near Pearsall, in September. Detainees may spend months in costly federal custody, even when cheaper alternatives are available. Illustrates IMMIG-JAILS (category a), by Nick Miroff © 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Dominic Bracco II/ Prime)
Detainees play cards in September at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened last year in Texas and holds more than 600. It has become a showcase for improved detention conditions. As crossings fall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reaches deeper into justice system to find non-documented immigrants to fill its detention facilities. Illustrates IMMIG-JAILS (category a), by Nick Miroff © 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Dominic Bracco II/ Prime)
In the past five years, Homeland Security officials have jailed record numbers of immigrants, driven by a little-known congressional directive known on Capitol Hill as the “bed mandate.”
The policy requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to keep an average of 34,000 detainees per day in its custody, a quota that has steadily risen since it was established in 2006 by conservative lawmakers who insisted that the agency wasn’t doing enough to deport unlawful immigrants.
But as illegal crossings from Mexico have fallen to near their lowest levels since the early 1970s, ICE has been meeting Congress’s immigration detention goals by reaching deeper into the criminal justice system to vacuum up foreign-born, legal U.S. residents convicted of any crimes that could render them eligible for deportation. The agency also has greatly expanded the number of undocumented immigrants it takes into custody following traffic stops by the local police.
Homeland Security officials say they are not needlessly jailing immigrants to meet a quota and find plenty of candidates for detention and deportation by targeting criminals who pose a threat to public safety and border security.
But critics of the mandate note that the majority of ICE detainees are not violent offenders. Many are eventually allowed to remain in the United States by immigration judges but may spend months in costly federal custody, even when far cheaper alternatives are available, such as ankle bracelets and other forms of electronic monitoring.
With federal spending on immigration detention and deportation reaching $2.8 billion a year, more than doubling since 2006, the mandate has met growing skepticism from budget hawks in both parties, particularly after DHS officials told Congress during the “sequestration” debate in April that the agency could save money by lowering the bed mandate to 31,800 and relying on cheaper alternatives to jails. But House Republicans successfully pushed back, set the mandate at 34,000 detainees and ordered ICE officials to spend nearly $400 million more than they requested.
Some of the additional money provided by Congress will be spent filling beds at places such as Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened in Texas last year. It holds more than 600 detainees. The low-security facility was built and operated on the government’s behalf by a private contractor, the GEO Group.
Congress’s expanding detention goals have been a boon to the contractors, especially Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America.The two companies have won hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ICE contracts in recent years while lobbying Congress on immigration enforcement issues.
Former ICE director Julie Myers Wood, who led the agency from 2006 to 2008, said the mandate was a reasonable guideline at the outset of her tenure, when the Border Patrol was making more than a million arrests per year. But today, she said, “it doesn’t make sense.”
Defenders of the bed mandate say it remains a useful tool to compel ICE to devote the maximum amount of resources to catching and deporting illegal migrants and foreign-born legal residents who commit crimes, including dangerous gang members, rapists and other violent felons.
With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, they argue, there’s still a vast pool of potential deportees for the agency to pursue, or as Rep. John Abney Culberson, a Republican from Texas, put it, “plenty of customers.”
As illegal border crossings have declined, a growing portion of ICE detainees are legal U.S. residents who face deportation after completing a jail term or probation.
Of the 33,391 immigrants held in federal custody on Sept. 7 – a single-day snapshot provided by ICE – 19,864 were convicted criminals, according to the agency. Immigrant advocates and attorneys say the majority of detainees have convictions for lesser offenses such as drug possession – or no criminal record at all.
Nearly 48 percent of the 350,000 immigrants over the past 16 months who triggered an “ICE detainer” – a request by the agency that local jails hold an individual until ICE can pick them up – had no criminal convictions, not even traffic violations, according to the TRAC Immigration Project. Almost half of all potential deportees who appear in immigration court are allowed to remain in the United States, according to TRAC data.
But many end up spending months, even years, in custody while they await a ruling.
ICE officials have testified to Congress that Alternatives to Detention programs have had compliance rates of 96 percent with court-ordered appearances.
Yet the agency’s budget for alternatives is less than $100 million, dwarfed by its detention budget. The comprehensive immigration reform bill approved by the Senate in June would expand use of these methods, but the legislation faces increasingly dim prospects in the House.