Congress held two hearings this month to examine the government's decision to release more than 2,000 immigrants from detention for budgetary reasons. The good news is that committee members of both parties used these hearings to focus on the core issue: our flawed immigration-detention system.
The government's purpose in detaining immigrants is not to punish them, but to ensure that they show up for hearings and comply with removal orders. In many cases, though, detention is not the best way to achieve these goals. Alternatives to detention are both routine and effective. They're employed every day, not just in the immigration system, but in the criminal justice systems of all 50 states and the federal government. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be wise to re-examine how it uses alternatives in order to best fulfill its mission.
ICE detains more than 400,000 immigrants in jails and jaillike facilities across the country each year, at a cost of $2 billion. Some people, particularly those who have been determined to pose a threat to public safety, need to be detained. For many others, however, ICE can compel appearance with much less drastic and much more cost-effective measures.Using sophisticated risk-assessment techniques such as those used in the criminal justice system, ICE can identify people whose flight risk can be mitigated and who don't threaten public safety. About half of immigrant detainees have no criminal record at all, and almost 90 percent have never been convicted of a violent crime, according to ICE. This group includes legal immigrants who overstayed their visas, border-crossers with strong community ties, and asylum-seekers who have fled persecution only to find themselves locked up in the United States.
Alternatives to detention programs work, particularly when coupled with a sensible overall strategy to ensure compliance. That's why a large and diverse collection of groups — including the Heritage Foundation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Conference of Chief Justices, the Council on Foreign Relations' Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, and the Vera Institute of Justice — have endorsed alternatives.Used on a limited basis in the immigration system, alternatives to detention are developing a record of success. One alternative-to-detention program at ICE is called the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program II (ISAP II), and is run by a contractor, BI Inc. ICE determines the possible alternatives based on a person's risk profile, with options including a full-service program with case management and a technology-only program. In 2011, 96 percent of active participants in the full-service ISAP II programs showed up for their final hearing, and 84 percent complied with final orders.Alternatives cost taxpayers less than $9 per person per day, compared to $116 per person per day for those in detention. As the agency fine-tunes the program, it should become even more effective, especially if court proceedings for those in alternative-to-detention programs move ahead in a timely manner, which will require adequate funding of our nation's immigration courts.Congress shouldn't limit ICE's ability to develop new measures to ensure compliance. ICE must have the flexibility to address flight risk on a case-by-case basis. Like other law enforcement agencies, ICE needs to be able to make its detention decisions based on actual need and enforcement priorities.People from across the political spectrum are realizing that it pays to get tough on budgets by using alternatives to detention in the immigration system. It will be good news for the country if they make their voices heard as Congress tackles the budget and immigration reform in the weeks to come.
Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (20062008), is president of Guidepost Solutions LLC, whose clients include BI Inc. and other government contractors. Steve J. Martin, former general counsel for the Texas prison system, is a corrections consultant and lawyer.