If the end of immigration detention is above all a matter of human rights, it is also an economic imperative. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the federal government has spent approximately $ 333 billion on immigration law enforcement. In 2018, he spent nearly $ 3.1 billion in detention alone. While it costs taxpayers about $ 134 per day to keep someone in a detention center, alternatives, such as case management and electronic monitoring, cost an average of about $ 6 per day.
And yet, our government regularly refuses to use these alternative measures. According to the government’s own policies, asylum seekers who can prove their identity and demonstrate that they do not present a risk of flight or a threat to public safety should be released.
But in some jurisdictions, judges or ICE agents summarily dismiss such requests – a trend that has skyrocketed in the Trump administration as emboldened ICE agents dismissed entire cases. In 2018, ICE’s field office in New Orleans, for example, denied more than 98% of parole applications.
Of course, the current alternatives to detention in the United States are far from perfect in terms of human rights. Many people are released from detention with uncomfortable and stigmatizing anklets; in rural areas, they have to travel hundreds of kilometers every week, with limited means of transport or funds, to meet their ICE agents or, in rare cases, social workers, who are not always supportive or helpful. But these alternatives could be dramatically improved and better monitored – at a small fraction of the human and economic cost of maintaining a sprawling network of detention centers.
Despite being a prime candidate for parole, M. was held in custody for around 18 months before being deported in May 2020 without warning, after a Covid outbreak at his facility. (He is now fighting his asylum claim from Honduras.) Even he was surprised to have lasted so long inside. Detention is made to break people up.
As standard as it has become for our country to imprison people seeking refuge within our borders, it is worth remembering how important new immigration detention is throughout human history. . The first detention center in the world entirely devoted to immigrants was Ellis Island, “the island which”, as the French novelist Georges Perec wrote, “in all European languages / had been renamed the Island of Tears”. The second of its kind was Angel Island, a sentinel prison in the San Francisco Bay area, at the other end of the “land of the free,” where, between 1910 and 1940, immigrants mostly from Asia. East were detained.
The United States, then, a country whose founding mythologies are rooted in freedom and protection from tyranny, invented the detention of immigrants – a creation that costs tremendously in human lives, the human psyche, and the mind. national and taxpayers. And this is one that, given all these alternatives, we never had to create in the first place.