Reducing Immigration Detention

Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") officials announced this week that it has released "several hundred" immigrants from jails across the country in an effort to cut costs in anticipation of sequestration. ICE officials emphasized that those who were released are considered low-risk and "noncriminal" and that they have been "placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release." This of course begs the question of why such immigrants were detained in the first place.

In the past decade, immigration detention has soared to unprecedented levels. On any given day, ICE detains around 32,000 immigrants in jails across the country. The average daily cost of detention is $166 per person, and $2 billion per year. In our own backyard, three immigration detention facilities, West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Sacramento County Jail and Yuba County Jail, house over 450 immigrants daily.

Despite ICE reports acknowledging that only 11 percent of immigrants in detention have committed violent crimes, Congress has legislated that broad categories of immigrants be detained. Mr. Soundala, a green card holder from Laos who was released from Sacramento County Jail yesterday, falls within one of those categories. An immigration judge twice closed his case due to his lack of mental competency, but the judge had no authority to release him. Mr. Soundala ended up in immigration detention on a simple drug possession conviction for which he was sentenced to 15 days in jail. His 10 months in immigration detention cost taxpayers up to $52,000.

As Congress debates immigration reform, the conversation has been nearly silent on the bloated immigration detention system. Alternatives to detention, which can cost as little as 30 cents to $14 per day, are effective and humane substitutes for the current system. In this era of budget tightening, a drastic reduction in immigration detention needs to be a part of a comprehensive immigration plan.