The Madness of U.S. Immigration Detention Policy

"Imagine if Congress mandated that an arbitrary number of jail cells be filled with prisoners -- regardless of the crime rate. Authorities would be required to incarcerate people, no matter the circumstances or the affront to human rights. That’s basically the state of immigration detention in the U.S.  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.  As the number of beds has increased -- from 19,702 in 2001 to 34,000 in 2012 -- the number of noncitizens detained has kept pace, at a cost of approximately $120 a day for each prisoner. This is what happens when public policy is written in reverse, mandating outcomes without regard to inputs.  Some detained noncitizens are violent criminals who need to be locked up. Others are mothers or fathers who have committed traffic violations. Their forced separation from families and jobs undermines both social cohesion and the economy -- at taxpayer expense.  Few of these people are flight risks. Undocumented immigrants appear for their administrative hearings more than 90 percent of the time,according to Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. 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?" - Bloomberg View, Sept. 26, 2013.