Immigration Law

Alternatives to Immigrant Incarceration: A Better Way

David Secor, Heidi Altman and Tara Tidwell Cullen of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), April 2019

"As the Trump administration seeks to indefinitely detain asylum seekers and continues its rapid expansion of its immigration prison system, a new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) calls on the U.S. government to end the use of immigration detention and adopt community-based models already in use in some U.S. cities and around the world. These programs ensure migrants have access to the support and services they need and can help the United States avoid the costly and inhumane consequences of incarceration.

The report, A Better Way: Community-Based Programming as an Alternative to Immigrant Incarceration, reviews studies of alternatives-to-detention programming and features programs in Chicago, Sweden, and Toronto, Canada, which provide feasible new models for migration processing in the United States. Studies have found that migrants who participate in community-based programming comply with their immigration court cases at rates of 90 percent or higher, and that these programs cost up to 80 percent less than detention.

“Something has gone terribly wrong in our country in the past 30 years where incarceration has become the centerpiece of our immigration system. There are models from around the world and right here in the U.S. that show there is a better way,” said NIJC Director of Policy Heidi Altman. “Why is the United States growing an immigration prison system that harms immigrants and betrays basic human rights norms, when organizations and communities around the world are modeling alternatives that work, are vastly cheaper, and embrace compassion rather than cruelty? It’s an affront to Americans that Congress has failed to seriously consider these proven models, even as they vote to fill the coffers of the private prison industry.”

NIJC calls on the United States to end detention and instead invest in community-based programming that meets the following best practices:

  1. Is community-based and community-supported
  2. Is operated exclusively by nonprofit organizations, using a case management model
  3. Imposes the least onerous obligations possible on participants, without using ankle shackles or other GPS tracking devices
  4. Develops trust between nonprofit operators and participants, including assurances that nonprofit operators will not be beholden to the government for compliance monitoring

In the report, NIJC also illustrates the ways in which the U.S. government’s current “Alternatives to Detention” programs contradict nearly all established best practices and actually increase the number of migrants under government surveillance and control.

The U.S.-based model featured in the report, the Marie Joseph House operated by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants (ICDI) in Chicago, is one of many nonprofit organizations which have opened their doors to welcome asylum seekers and immigrants who come to the United States seeking safety and security. ICDI provides food and housing, as well as case management support including referrals to mental health and legal services, and accompaniment to court hearings and ICE check-in appointments.

“The injury left behind by immigration jail is in the heart,” says Izzie, an NIJC client and former resident of the Marie Joseph House. “I see a police officer or I hear a siren and my heart races. Everything around you reminds you of what you just endured in jail. You progress, but it is hard to feel free. … If there was another way, it would change everything.”

Read the report at www.immigrantjustice.org/BetterWay"