Whenever we learn of the implementation of a “quota”—some arbitrary number chosen as a performance goal—we naturally bristle at the policy, especially when it is imposed by law enforcement. We like to believe that those we entrust with protecting our communities and keeping us safe do so with that interest in mind, not with the goal of hitting some random number on some monthly or annual report.
Yet every day, the federal government keeps 34,000 immigrants locked up, not because of need, but because Congress has mandated an immigrant detention bed "quota." Basically, no matter what the circumstances, the federal government through its immigration enforcement arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), must fill 34,000 immigrant detention beds per day. What this means is that immigrants, very often with no criminal record and who pose no threat to the national security, are arrested and detained in state and federal detention facilities, sometimes with the general population.
Imagine… fathers, mothers, even grandparents (yes, grandparents) being jailed and housed with the general population of convicted criminals. In my practice as an immigration attorney, I have seen numerous individuals, some stopped for merely a traffic violation, detained and separated from their families and jobs for long periods of time. When I appear with them in immigration court, they are in orange jumpsuits and shackled at the ankles and wrists like criminals. The fact is that many of these detained immigrants are not even dangerous—over half of the immigrant detainees between 2009 and 2011 had no criminal history at all. Yet in detention they must remain while they await resolution of their immigration case, which, given the overburdened immigration court system could be months or even years. And that is if they last that long. There have been numerous reports of inadequate medical treatment and unsanitary conditions in some of these facilities. Consequently, I have had clients surrender to deportation—even when relief was available to them—because they could not handle the indefinite nature of their confinement and the indignity of it all.
It is not only inhumane, the immigrant bed quota is also expensive. It costs the American taxpayer over $2 billion a year to keep immigrants detained. Two billion of our taxpayer dollars that could be used to fund more sensible programs this country really needs, such as improving our education system. In addition, less costly alternatives exist. It costs anywhere from $0.17 to $18 per day to release the individual and supervise him or her using alternative methods such as a GPS ankle monitor. Such alternative methods can save the taxpayer money while keeping families together.
In June 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced an initiative to refocus its enforcement resources and priorities. It directed its agency with the cooperation of the Department of Justice to review pending and new cases to assess whether each case meets certain high priority factors, in particular, whether such case involves a threat to the national security. The purpose of this initiative was to ensure that the Department’s efforts remain focused on removing persons who are most dangerous to our country. The immigrant detention bed quota, which has been in effect since 2007, remains in place despite the fact that it directly contradicts and is incongruous with these stated enforcement priorities. Whereas the focus of the June 2011 initiative is channeling this country’s resources to keeping our country safe, the immigrant detention bed quota serves no such legitimate purpose. Rather, it does the opposite by corrupting the law enforcement process. The bed quota puts pressure on ICE agents to work hard to meet the quota, rather than work hard to meet the needs of our country.
This is not a call for an end to all detention of immigrants. There are some that should be detained such as those that are a safety threat. But there is no justification for a mandatory quota. No other federal or local law enforcement agency has a similar quota because it just makes no sense. The immigrant bed quota is bad policy. It is wasteful and inhumane. Congress should eliminate it immediately.