THE BLOG

Detention Costs Convey Immigration Reform's Urgency

08/22/2013 12:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013
  • Ali Noorani Executive Director, National Immigration Forum

Imagine if Congress could save Americans $1.44 billion in one simple step.

Well, it can -- by making sure immigration reform includes smarter policies for detaining unauthorized immigrants.

Broad immigration reform will be good for our nation's bottom line for a multitude of reasons. Immigrants are key to American ingenuity and competitiveness, and new Americans take risks and help create jobs.

Immigrants even strengthen the U.S. housing market.

Our immigrant detention policies not only lock up the financial contributions of immigrants, but also cost us $5 million per day.

Those of us who want our government to spend our money more wisely can point to the huge potential for reform to save on detention costs. With a streamlined legal immigration process, fewer immigrants will end up in detention.

The dollar amounts are not small change.

According to "The Math of Immigration Detention," a newly updated National Immigration Forum report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spends almost $2 billion per year on immigration detention.

Right now, we could save almost 80 percent of that cost -- $1.44 billion -- if we switched to effective alternatives to detention for detainees who have not been convicted of a serious crime.

Yet the House of Representatives has signaled that it plans to take the opposite approach. Its budget for the 2014 fiscal year would boost immigration detention spending to $5.6 million per day -- $164 a day for each detainee.

The U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to immigration, and the House of Representatives is at the wheel. Its budget would keep us on the same expensive road -- call it Enforcement Avenue.

Families would continue to be torn apart, and hardworking aspiring Americans would keep on living in the shadows, unable to contribute fully to our economy and our communities.

But there's a better road: one on which we unite families rather than divide them, give our hardworking neighbors the opportunity to come out of the shadows and eventually earn citizenship, and detain only those who pose a threat to public safety.

This path is also the one that will save us billions and vastly reduce the number of immigrants in detention.

In fiscal 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, we financed the detention of a whopping 429,247 immigrants. That's like detaining the population of Atlanta. (Nothing against Atlanta.)

Much of the cost for those hundreds of thousands ends up in the coffers of large private-prison corporations. Three of the largest have spent at least $45 million in the past 10 years on campaign donations and lobbyists.

In other words, big business is reaping benefits from immigrant detention.

With Congress home for the August recess, Republicans and Democrats alike are hearing broad support for immigration reform -- and a growing number of Republicans are seriously considering the road to smart reform.

A new immigration process will help us realize our full potential as a nation that values family unity, hard work and economic prosperity. American families, both longstanding and new, deserve a commonsense immigration process that moves us forward.

Most important, American taxpayers deserve solutions that help us rather than remove $2 billion a year from our pockets.

For more on "The Math of Immigration Detention," follow the conversation Thursday on Twitter at #MathOfDetention, including a Q&A from 2 to 3 p.m. EDT.