Luis Segura, a construction worker from El Salvador facing deportation, recently spent more than six months behind bars at an immigrant detention center in the Mojave Desert. His stay, at $118 a night, cost taxpayers about $22,000.
A few months ago, with his case still pending, Segura was released from detention on condition that he wear a GPS tracking device on his ankle and check in twice a week with parole officers. The cost: about $8 a day.
With immigrant detention levels at their highest point in history — last year, the government spent roughly $2 billion to detain more than 400,000 people — there is a growing push for cheaper alternatives.
Last fall, dozens of members of Congress asked President Obama to do away with a quota that requires the government to pay for 34,000 beds in detention centers each night. Instead, they urged greater use of ankle bracelets and various types of electronic and in-person monitoring programs.
Advocates from groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Heritage Foundation have come out in support of such alternatives. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, about 90% of immigrants in those programs comply with the requirements and show up for required court hearings.
Though Obama has not moved to eliminate the detention quota, his 2015 budget proposal for the Department of Homeland Security signals a shift.
The proposal calls for a reduction to about 30,500 beds per night, which would save $185 million annually. At the same time, the administration is calling for a slight increase to about $94 million in funding for the alternative programs.
Ruth Epstein, legislative policy analyst with the ACLU, said Obama should go further. She called the detention mandate "massive micromanaging on the part of Congress" and said the categories of people eligible for alternative programs should be expanded.
Under current law, the vast majority of those in ICE custody are subject to mandatory detention to ensure that they show up for their immigration hearings and are deported if a removal order is issued.
Those who are held include recent border crossers facing deportation, those who illegally reentered the United States after previously being removed, legal residents who have been convicted of crimes and those seeking political asylum.
She said the government should conduct case-by-case evaluations to decide whether an immigrant needs to be detained.
"Detention is jail; it's a removal of someone's liberties," Epstein said. "We in America should not be doing that without due process."
Opponents of expanding alternatives to detention say it is essential that immigrants facing possible deportation remain in government custody.
"Illegal immigrants in particular are almost the embodiment of a flight risk," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a more restrictive immigration system. "People who don't really have any realistic prospect of winning their case before an immigration judge have absolutely zero incentive to show up."
While he said there are some cases in which alternatives are appropriate, he said detention "should be the default setting."
The number of immigrants held behind bars in the United States has increased steadily since the 1990s, when Congress expanded the range of crimes that can trigger deportation. The number has risen in recent years even as numbers of immigrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen to the lowest levels since the 1970s.
Segura illegally crossed into the United States 26 years ago. He said he and his family were fleeing El Salvador's civil war.
Segura graduated from high school in Los Angeles and worked for two decades as a construction site supervisor with the same company. During a 2007 trip to Las Vegas, he was pulled over for drunk driving. At the time he had temporary protected status, which is granted to some immigrants when they are unable to return to their home country because of armed conflict, an environmental disaster or other conditions.
After he failed to attend an immigration hearing stemming from his arrest, a judge revoked his protected status and issued a removal order. Segura said he did not attend the hearing because he was sick — he has diabetes — and went to court the following day to explain.
Several years later, he was stopped at a police checkpoint and cited for driving on a suspended license. When he did not show up for that hearing — he said his employer refused to let him take the day off — a judge issued a bench warrant.
He was arrested last year after a traffic officer discovered the warrant while running his license plate, and was eventually transferred into ICE custody.
Segura was held in California's largest immigrant detention center, a privately run facility in the small desert town of Adelanto.
"I spent Christmas and my birthday in jail," said Segura, who asked his three American-born daughters not to visit him because he didn't want them to see him in an orange jumpsuit. "It was ugly."
He now lives in San Bernardino. He must be home every Wednesday from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. for a visit from a parole specialist. Every Thursday, Segura makes an appearance at the ICE office.
He hopes he will be successful in challenging the deportation order. He hasn't been back to El Salvador since 1987 but, if ordered, said he would have no choice except to return.
"I don't want to be on the run for the rest of my life," he said.
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