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As Sequestration Looms, It’s Time to Look at Alternatives to Immigration Detention

New York, NY, February 28, 2013—As sequestration looms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a controversial move, has released low-risk immigration detainees across the country to save money.

“While this move has set the Internet abuzz with criticisms, the reality is that this is the right time to be questioning how we will pay for maintaining more than 34,000 immigration detention beds at an average cost of $164 per night during a fiscal crisis,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Women's Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice Program. “The U.S. spends almost $2 billion a year to detain thousands of individuals who are not a public safety risk and who could be managed more efficiently and humanely through much cheaper alternatives. Perhaps this crisis will finally move Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to do the right thing and stop using an outdated penal detention system when humane alternatives exist that are also more efficient and just as effective.”

This approach has support in Congress. In a statement released February 27, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D, Cal) said, “The sequester is forcing ICE to do what it should have been doing already – placing people who don’t pose a threat to their communities or our country into the proven Alternatives to Detention Program.”

Alternative forms of detention and alternatives to detention have long been a proven working model for ensuring that those in immigration proceedings appear for hearings and deportation. Study after study has shown that alternatives work, are more humane and are in line with our national values. They are more economical than costly traditional penal detention models, and should be the priority.

“With success rates above 90 percent, they deliver strong results.  If Republicans were really serious about fiscal responsibility and about fixing our broken immigration system, they would join me in applauding ICE’s decision.” Said Rep Roybal-Allard.

The average cost of alternatives varies from 17¢ to $44 a day depending on the level of restriction or services provided. They include releasing people to a responsible sponsor or family member, with information on when they need to appear before a court (like many pre-trial programs do in our criminal justice system across the country); requiring periodic check-ins with a detention officer or case worker; or more restrictive options, like house arrest or GPS programs for those who may present a higher risk of flight. Some of these programs are already in place but are underused. Some have been piloted and others, such as community support programs, are in their early implementation stages for immigration detainees, but have long been used for criminal and delinquent detainees.

The current administration has detained and deported immigrants at record rates. It has developed and implemented a groundbreaking system of risk assessment that for the first time in the history of our enormous immigration detention and deportation system allows the government to actually know whom it is detaining and why. It has also instituted a detainee locator system that allows detainees’ attorneys and families to know whom they are detaining and how to get in touch with them.  These are all important advances that have made our immigration detention and enforcement system more efficient and transparent. For decades, Congress has insisted that the number of detention beds continue to rise, even though the administration has often claimed it does not require all the beds in order to continue its record enforcement rates.

“It is time for this irresponsible spending to end,” said Brané. “Now is the time to truly embrace alternatives to detention that allow us to implement rule of law more efficiently, for less money and more humanely than outdated and expensive methods of imprisonment. It is an opportunity to benefit from American ingenuity and advance human rights.”


Michelle Brané is available to comment at 646.717.7191.

Congresswoman Roybal-Allard is the author of HR 639, the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act.  In addition to strengthening the standards that govern our immigration prisons, the bill would dramatically expand Alternatives to Detention, especially for vulnerable populations, such as elderly, pregnant and sick immigrants.