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Congressional mandate ensures thousands of immigrants remain behind bars

Published time: October 14, 2013 21:03
Immigrant detainees walk through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention facility. (AFP Photo / John Moore)

Immigrant detainees walk through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention facility. (AFP Photo / John Moore)

United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have the facilities to keep tens of thousands of detainees locked up each day, and a new report suggests they’re having no problem making that happen.

One reason, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff wrote over the weekend, is a little-known “bed mandate” authorized by Congress in 2006 that makes it a policy for ICE to keep around 34,000 detainees in custody every day at costly detention centers.

Even though illegal crossings at the Mexican border are approaching new lows not seen in decades, those expensive-to-operate facilities are brimming with foreign-born suspects  — including many harmless, non-violent offenders — in order for federal authorities to stay close to their quota.

Only around 11 percent of detainees at these federal facilities were convicted of violent crime as of 2009, the Post reported, but ICE has resorted regardless to picking up immigrants and sticking them inside detention centers, in turn costing the country billions of dollars annually on an initiative that some are now questioning.

According to Miroff, ICE has been “reaching deeper into the criminal justice system to vacuum up foreign-born, legal US residents convicted of any crimes that could render them eligible for deportation.” They are then sent to facilities like the Karnes County Civil Detention Center Miroff visited outside of San Antonio, Texas, and catered to at a cost of over $150 a day.

By comparison, locking up a detainee in a regular jail cell would cost only $10, Miroff wrote. As far as the for-profit private companies that operate detention facilities like the one in Karnes County, however, keeping a high number of residents within its walls means equally impressive profits.

Now amid a nearly two-week-old government shutdown and the looming possibility of the US declaring default for the first time in the country’s history, ICE’s practice of putting any immigrant it can catch behind bars at astronomical costs is causing concern.

Miroff notes that immigration depending and deportation costs Uncle Sam around $2.8 billion annually right now, and even a few months ago Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested that ICE ease back on its bed mandate quota to pinch pennies.

All I can say is look, we’re doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester,” Napolitano said back in February. “But there’s only so much I can do. I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?”

Under budget cuts, Napolitano said her department “would not be able to maintain the 34,000 detention beds as required by Congress." Eight months after those remarks, however, facilities are just as full as ever.

Julie Myers Wood, a former ICE director appointed under then-President George W. Bush, told the Post that the quota almost made sense during that administration when US Border Patrol agents were arresting over a million people each year. With numbers now nowhere near that statistic, today she says “it doesn’t make sense” to keep housing immigrants who are scooped up by authorities and processed into detention facilities until eventual court hearings can be scheduled.

The explicit purpose of ICE detaining people is to make sure they show up for their immigration hearings, so it would make sense to consider less costly, more humane alternatives that meet that same goal,” added Ruthie Epstein, legislative policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last week, around 20,000 people marched on Washington during a massive immigration rally meant to raise awareness of the White House’s continuing habit of deporting immigrants not even awarded a chance at applying for US citizenship. Around 200 people were arrested, including Democratic US Representatives John Lewis (GA) said Joe Crowley (D-NY), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Al Green (D-TX), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Luis Guiterrez (IL), Charlie Rangel (NY) and Jan Schakowsky (IL).