Thanks to a line in the appropriations bill that finances the Department of Homeland Security, 34,000 beds must be available in immigration detention facilities regardless of the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. or the rate, or nature, of crimes they commit. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency interprets the mandate as a requirement to keep “a yearly average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals,” former ICE Director John Morton told a congressional panel in March.
Some detained non-citizens are violent criminals who need to be locked up. Others are mothers or fathers who have committed traffic violations. Few of these people are flight risks. They comply with final orders 84 percent of the time. Yet ICE detains more than 400,000 immigrants in more than 250 jails and other facilities at an annual cost of $2 billion. Why?
Partly because punitive actions against undocumented immigrants are popular in some congressional districts and partly because a more rational approach would disrupt cherished revenue streams. Local officials have “treated the increase in bed mandates as a source of revenue for counties and a job creator for their region,” according to a 2013 National Immigration Forum report.
An amendment sponsored by Democratic Representatives Ted Deutch and Bill Foster sought to strike the detention mandate from the Homeland Security appropriation bill altogether. Their amendment failed in June on a largely partisan vote.
Many alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, curfews and home visits, cost no more than a few dollars a day. Yet ICE lacks the discretion to shift its policy.
Americans can disagree about the nature of immigration and the best ways to reform the system (or not). But wasting money on an arbitrary prison mandate serves no one’s interest. Next spring, Deutch and Foster should reintroduce their amendment. And the House should show the good sense to put authority — and discretion — for detaining immigrants where it belongs.