Deportation Nation and Detention Math: The Past, Present, and Future (Hopefully) of the American Immigration System

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Over the past few weeks, as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has taken aim at President Obama’s deferred action program and both major parties have opened their national conventions, the media has carried a lot of jargon-laden debate about America’s immigration system and how to reform it.  Much of this back-and-forth centers on deportations and detention. I thought it might behoove us to take a step back and look at these topics in detail: where the deportations and detention debate began, how it stands today, and how LIRS is advocating for reform.

A good look at the roots of the debate can be found in Daniel Kanstroom’s excellent Aug. 30th New York Times article on how America has become, as he terms it, a “deportation nation.”  While Barack Obama has been variously chided and lauded for being the president who has overseen the most deportations ever, the problem runs much deeper than simply the actions of the past four years.

Before 1996, Kanstroom reports, deportation was a fairly small part of the work of the Department of Homeland Security, then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  Since then, however, with the passage of the Illegal immigration Reform and immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, “one of histories’ most open societies has developed a huge, costly, harsh system of expulsion.” Kanstroom’s position is that we have used and abused our deportation and detention systems, exuding fiscal and moral irresponsibility.  It seems that we have forgotten our “melting pot” history, and have made the end goal of our immigration system the deportation of otherwise law-abiding people instead of the inclusiveness of a dynamic population group.

This “vast experiment in deportation” has been far from successful, however.  It “hasn’t deterred undocumented immigration, which increased steadily from 2000 to 2007.   Nor has it substantially reduced serious crime rates; a 2007 study found that American men between 18 and 39 were 5 times more likely than foreign born men to be imprisoned.  What is has done is forcibly separate hundreds of thousands of families.”  For more information on common misconceptions on how the immigration system works or doesn’t, check out LIRS’ mythbusters series.

And this transformation into the deportation nation has been far from cost-effective.  Immigration detention costs the government about 166 dollars a day per detained person. Last week, Los Angeles released a new report that said the city spent over $26 million annually to detain individuals at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  In a similar fashion, Dan Gordon, Communications Assistant for the National Immigration Forum, laid out explicitly how much inhumane detention was costing in his Aug. 29th article for Immigration Impact, “Doing the Math: Immigration Detention Costs a Pretty Penny.” Gordon says that “by detaining and deporting only those immigrants who pose a threat to public safety and by employing community-based alternatives to detention, the government could save up to 1.6 billion a year.” And that does not even take into account the emotional and psychological trauma that detention causes immigrants, their families and U.S. communities.

The human toll described by Kanstroom and Gordon are the primary reasons LIRS supports community-based alternatives to detention, and, through our work in the Access to Justice unit, advocates for the rights of immigrants currently in detention or recently released who await a final decision from the courts about their future.  Our current detention processes are inhumane and largely unnecessary, and even in violation of international conventions that safeguard the rights of migrants.  Additionally, alternatives to detention, namely community-based alternatives, would cost the government roughly 18 percent of their current spending.

LIRS advocates for the United States to stop spending so much money on ineffective and inhumane proceedings. Instead, the government should save taxpayers money by creating more community-based alternatives to detention that provide people with necessary services that encourage compliance with ongoing immigration proceedings, rehabilitation from past torture or trauma, and long-term integration into U.S. society. These alternatives provide “supervised release and assistance programs that work with individuals selected based on a positive assessment of their ties to the community, compliance in previous proceedings, and whether they pose a threat to public safety.”  Therefore, resources are spent on an individual level, eliminating unnecessary costs, both fiscal and humanitarian, and migrants are able to access  critical services in their community.

Reports by people such as Kanstroom and Gordon bear out LIRS’s position that, for ethical, legal, and financial reasons, the United States should pursue community-based alternatives to detention, or risk becoming a “deportation and detention nation” indefinitely. As the dust settles from political conventions and disputes over deferred action, we can aim for a future with more just alternatives to detention, fewer wasted taxpayer dollars, and a more humane responses to migration flows in the United States.

You can make a difference at this pivotal moment. For more information on alternatives to detention and how to advocate and educate, click here.  For more information on how to volunteer to visit an immigrant in detention, click here. Stand for Welcome!


 Image credit: AshtonNekolah

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