The United States has the dubious honor of maintaining the world’s largest immigration detention system. Other countries may house more refugees and temporarily displaced persons, but we lock up the most people whose right to stay in the country is in dispute. Tens of thousands of people a day are held until they’re deported or granted permission to stay by an immigration judge (or at least released on bond or into a sponsor’s custody pending a further hearing).
It is a shameful aspect of U.S. immigration enforcement that the government denies liberty to so many people who have neither been accused nor convicted of a crime. To be sure, every nation has a right to control its borders and determine who gets to come in, for what reasons, and through what legal mechanism. We don’t believe that the U.S. should maintain open borders, but the government’s historic reliance on detention as a tool for dealing with people accused of arriving or staying here illegally is needlessly expensive, grossly inhumane and unjust to people exercising their legal right to seek asylum.
While the current administration has embraced and expanded the practice, this is not a creation of President Trump. Such detentions date to the Immigration Act of 1882, and current detention policies are rooted in the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act. More recently, Cuban and Haitian migrants arriving by boat in the 1970s and ’80s were placed in detention centers, in part to deter their countrymen from similarly setting off to sea on rickety boats. Congress eventually mandated detention for migrants convicted of certain crimes that made them ineligible for admission.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 greatly expanded the immigration detention system through contracts with local jails and state and privately run prisons. In fact, most of the 39,000 people incarcerated on any given day in the U.S. for immigration reasons — more than 350,000 pass through the system each year — are held in prison-like conditions in more than 200 locations around the country.
Some local governments have expanded their jails so they can house, for a daily fee, migrants that Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants detained. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted $360 million in low-interest loans since 1996 to help rural communities build jails often larger than they need, so local officials can use detainees and the federal fee payments they bring to cover operating expenses, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
ICE spends nearly $3 billion a year on immigration detention, according to the Government Accountability Office. About two-thirds of that goes to private prison corporations to operate detention centers and to local jails to reimburse them for housing detainees. Through those efforts the government has expanded an incarceration industry costing an exorbitant amount of tax dollars to deny freedom of movement of people who, in the vast majority of cases, pose no threat to us.
There may, of course, be valid reasons for detaining some migrants, such as newly arrived asylum-seekers whose identities have yet to be verified, people facing imminent court-ordered deportation who the government has reason to fear might disappear, or violent felons who pose a realistic threat to public safety.
One of the largest contributors to no-shows is the government’s failure to keep current contact information for migrants during proceedings that can stretch out for years. One approach would be to match migrants to community service groups or sponsors to better keep track of the individuals and ensure they appear for court hearings; sadly, Trump killed an experimental Obama program that did just that.
This administration has chosen instead to double down on detention, and now it reportedly is considering reviving a version of the vile family separations. If family separation and detention worked as a deterrent, the president wouldn’t be tweeting so furiously these days about the current caravan of Central American migrants moving northward through Mexico. Detention-as-deterrence is not only an inhumane approach, it’s a failed one.