The United States portrays itself as a beacon of freedom and liberty, yet it operates the world’s largest immigrant detention system, a burgeoning network that locks up refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants who seek protection or a new life on our shores. In 2015 alone, more than 367,000 men, women and children were imprisoned in a system of 637 public and for-profit private prisons. The Trump administration has promised a crackdown on undocumented immigrants that could set off more growth in the detention sector.
On any given day, as many as 42,000 people wait in detention as their cases slowly move through overburdened immigration courts. Some will languish for years, costing U.S. taxpayers $126 per inmate per day. Far more significant is the human cost. Incarceration often leads to illness, depression or even suicide. In little more than a decade, at least 166 immigrants have died while in detention.
Critics of detention argue that a 2009 congressional mandate requiring that ICE maintain 34,000 daily detention beds forces the agency to choose detention over alternatives. The quota has helped boost the stock of for-profit prison companies, which have looked to non-criminal immigrants as a source of growth. Immigrants nowrepresent the fastest-growing sector of the prison population.
The system is also financially burdensome. “We spend $2 billion a year just on detaining immigrants,” says Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group. “And this is only part of a much larger detention and deportation apparatus that costs us billions, but it’s also costly in human lives.” Alternatives to detention such as residential shelters are a less expensive, more humane way to comply with U.S. laws, he says. “Detention should never be the first priority.”