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Tan and Lin: Curtailing Immigration Prison System Can Reduce Spending Without Hurting Public Safety

Garfield Gayle, a 59-year-old green card holder from Jamaica, has lived in the United States for 30 years. He raised two U.S. citizen daughters and has long worked as a carpenter in Brooklyn. Nine months ago, when federal agents put him in handcuffs at his home, he learned that the government was trying to deport him based on an alleged drug offense that happened more than 17 years ago. Since then, the government has held him in mandatory immigration lock-up without any opportunity for a bond hearing—even though he is a strong candidate for immigration relief that would allow him to keep his green card and stay in the country permanently.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gayle’s case is not unique — a record-breaking 429,000 individuals in 2011 were held in immigration prisons, a figure that represents a 112 percent increase since 2002. There, many face inhumane conditions, suffer rape and sexual abuse and languish in prison, at a huge cost to the American taxpayers.

In the coming months, the president and Congress will focus on reducing the deficit, cutting government spending and reforming our flawed immigration system. Reducing our immigration prison system is an easy way to do all of the above.

The federal government spends about $2 billion annually on immigration prisons. In fact, the federal government spends more on immigration and border enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Marshals, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — combined. This hugely expensive immigration prison system costs taxpayers an estimated $122 to $164 per detainee per day, or about $44,500 to $60,000 per detainee per year. Effective alternatives to detention (ATD), by contrast, cost from 30 cents to $14 per day while providing adequate supervision for those individuals. The Department of Homeland Security has told Congress that “ATD is a cost-effective alternative to secure detention of aliens in removal proceedings.”

In most cases DHS simply does not need to incarcerate those charged with being deportable to ensure that they appear for their immigration court proceedings. But under current DHS practice, about 34,000 people are incarcerated in immigration prisons every day, often for months or even years, without having the opportunity to go before an immigration judge.

The roots of this problem are laws Congress enacted in 1996 that mandate custody for many people in deportation proceedings — including longtime lawful permanent residents convicted of minor crimes, even though they have already served their prison time.

Curtailing detention spending must be a key element of any congressional action on immigration reform. In addition, the Obama administration should take steps to limit its unnecessary and expensive use of mandatory and long-term immigration lock-up by, for example, expanding its use of ATD, providing bond hearings in front of immigration judges to people who are imprisoned six months or longer, stopping the mandatory detention of people with strong claims that they have a right to stay in the country, and ending the mandatory detention of people based on old crimes.

Americans do not need — and can no longer afford — immigration prisons for people who do not need to be locked up. Congress and the administration should stop wasting taxpayer money on detention; that will help ensure that our detention dollars are spent in a smart, prudent and humane way.

Michael Tan serves as staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. Joanne Lin serves as legislative counsel on immigration in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

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