Why you should care about the immigrant detention quota

The immigrant detention quota, first written into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations act in 2009, requires 34,000 detention beds to be maintained each day. The quota makes it mandatory for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to maintain a vast and expensive system to find, detain, and deport immigrants, leading to the separation of hundreds of thousands of families each year. To maintain the required bed space, ICE contracts with private prison corporations to operate immigrant detention facilities. The largest of these are Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which together earned nearly $478 million in revenue in 2014 from ICE detention.

2016 Presidential candidates are weighing in on this for-profit immigrant detention system. At a campaign event in May, Hillary Clinton commented, “I also think we have to reform detention system. I'm not sure a lot of Americans know a lot of the detention facilities for immigrants are run by private companies. They have a built in incentive to fill them up. There is actually a legal requirement that so many beds are filled. So people go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per day basis. That makes no sense to me. That is not the way we should be running any detention facility. There is a lot we have to do to change what is currently happening and try to put us on a path toward a better, humane system for everybody,” Clinton said.

At an event a few weeks later, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders also made clear where he stands on the for-profit detention system. Responding to a three-part question asking whether he would “help us shut down the for-profit prisons,” “shift money away from detaining people to other more humane methods,” and “work for comprehensive immigration reform,” Sanders answered “yes, yes, and yes” and elaborated on the necessity of ending mass incarceration.

Some sources, such as this Washington Post fact checker article, have downplayed the impact of the quota on immigrant detention with the observation that the quota requires only that 34,000 detention beds be maintained, not filled.

However, there are still conflicting opinions regarding the requirements of the quota, as well as powerful incentives for ICE to fill the beds. As recently as August 2014, a Department of Homeland Security report states that the bed quota requires the agency to make decisions based on bed space, in addition to whether detention is necessary for public safety. There remains substantial Congressional backlash against interpreting the quota as a requirement to only maintain, rather than fill, the beds. Rep. Culberson (R-TX) stated in an April 2015 hearing, “it’s not discretionary, it’s not optional. We want you to use 34,000 beds.”

Saldaña’s response was, “We’re working on that,” and she referenced Operation Cross Check, a series of raids, most recently in March 2015. For nearly half of immigrants detained in this raid, their most serious crime was a misdemeanor. People  — like Pastor Max Villatoro in Iowa City — with deep roots in the U.S. and old, non-violent offenses continue to be torn from their families. Saldaña’s exchange with Culberson reveals that an attempt to reach quota-level detention numbers still motivates these mass and inhumane immigration enforcement policies.

To add an additional layer of complexity, the national detention quota isn’t the only quota driving the immigrant detention system. Some facilities also have “guaranteed minimums” that operate like local quotas.

A new report by Detention Watch Network finds that at many detention centers, including those run by for-profit prison corporations, ICE promises prison companies and other contractors that a certain number of immigrants will be locked up at any given time at their local facility. If they can’t fill the beds, ICE will still pay. This serves as an added incentive to conduct raids such as Operation Cross Check in response to a low population at local detention centers.

Today’s immigrant detention system is full of these interconnected perverse incentives to seek out, detain, and deport productive members of families and communities at huge cost to taxpayers. On top of the costs of the two arbitrary quotas that incentivize greater detention, taxpayers foot the bill for the many overhead costs of immigrant detention. In a vicious cycle, ICE is expected to use those expenditures well, which in the eyes of many Congress members and oversight agencies means detaining and deporting as many people as possible.

If we are to escape this cycle, it’s essential that we relieve ICE of the necessity to maintain 34,000 detention beds so that immigrant detention infrastructure can be scaled down and eventually eliminated. Momentum is gathering in Congress for these changes. Earlier this year, Representatives Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced an amendment to eliminate the bed quota from the DHS Appropriations Act of 2015 (HR 240). Though it was ultimately rejected, they were joined in their call to end the quota by 52 other members of Congress in a letter submitted to the Office of Management and Budget. Representatives Ted Deutch (FL-21), Bill Foster (IL-11), and Adam Smith (WA-9) also recently introduced a bill to ban local immigrant detention quotas.

These developments show a common recognition from legislators and advocates that the necessary first step to ending our enormous and inhumane system of immigrant detention is to end the arbitrary, profit-driven quotas that incentivize it.