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Congress and DHS Can Learn From the Sequestration Threat: The Time for Alternatives to Detention Is Now

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As sequestration looms, the Internet and listservs are abuzz with the controversy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE's) decision to release immigration detainees across the country to save money. The reality is that this is the right time to be questioning how we will pay for maintaining over 34,000 immigration detention beds at an average cost of $164 per night during a fiscal crisis, which is threatening to shut down critical components of Defense and Homeland Security.

Our nation spends almost $2 billion a year to detain thousands of individuals who are not a public safety risk and who could be managed more efficiently and humanely through alternatives that are much cheaper. Perhaps this crisis will finally move Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to do the right thing and stop using an outdated penal detention system when humane alternatives exist that are also more efficient and just as effective.

The individuals being released from detention under ICE's sequestration response are low priority and have been found not to be a risk to public safety. In fact, 77 percent of the people ICE has been detaining have no criminal conviction. Congress needs to be held accountable for directing the unnecessary detention of thousands of people at great expense to taxpayers and our communities. The costs of immigration detention go further than the direct cost of paying for prison beds. The use of a penal, prison-based system to detain parents, business owners and homeowners has a devastating effect on our communities and economy. We can no longer afford these social, fiscal and civil liberty costs. Instead we should be investing in evidence-based methods that allow people to remain with their families and continue to contribute to their communities throughout their immigration proceedings.

Alternative Forms of Detention and Alternatives To Detention have long been a proven working model for ensuring that those in immigration proceedings appear for hearings and deportation. Study after study has shown that alternatives work (with appearance rates of over 90 percent), are more humane and are in line with our national values. Perhaps most relevant at this critical time, they are more economical than costly traditional penal detention models, and should be the priority.

The average cost of alternatives can vary from 17¢ a day to $44 a day depending on the level of restriction or services provided. So what are these alternatives? They include releasing people to a responsible sponsor or family member, with information on when they need to appear before a court (like many pre-trial programs do in our criminal justice system across the country), requiring periodic check-ins with a detention officer or case worker or something more restrictive like house arrest or GPS programs for those who may present a higher risk of flight. Some of these programs are already in place but are underused. Some are have been piloted and others, such as community support programs, are in their early implementation stages for immigration detainees, but have long been used for criminal and delinquent detainees.

Our country, a nation of innovators, a nation where the rule of law is not at the expense of human rights, needs to demonstrate to the world at large that we are once again willing to be leaders in justice.

The current administration has detained and deported immigrants at record rates. It has also instituted priority guidelines, prosecutorial discretion and improved standards. It has developed and implemented a groundbreaking system of risk assessment that for the first time in the history of our enormous immigration detention and deportation system allows the government to actually know who they are detaining and why. It has instituted a detainee locator system that allows attorneys, families and even the government to know who they are detaining and how to get in touch with them.

These are all important advances that have made our immigration detention and enforcement system more efficient and transparent. For decades, Congress has insisted that the number of detention beds continue to rise, even though the administration has often claimed they do not require all the beds in order to continue their record enforcement rates.

It is time for this irresponsible spending to end. As Representative Roybal-Allard said in her press release on Wednesday, "The sequester is forcing ICE to do what it should have been doing already - placing people who don't pose a threat to their communities or our country into the proven Alternatives to Detention Program," Now is the time to truly embrace alternatives to detention that allow us to implement rule of law more efficiently, for less money and more humanely than outdated and expensive methods of imprisonment. It is an opportunity to benefit from American ingenuity and enter a new age.