House budget bill attempts to thwart Congress's progress on immigration detention reform

Even as the Senate and House Judiciary committees last week made important strides toward common-sense and humane immigration reform, the House Appropriations Committee took a giant leap backward when it created new immigration detention rules that will waste government resources and continue to unnecessarily incarcerate thousands of people.

The appropriations committee voted to include a provision in the 2014 Department of Homeland Security budget which requires that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fill 34,000 jail and prison beds each night with immigrants facing deportation. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) noted during the debate that the detention bed mandate is “arbitrary,” yet the committee voted to increase the quota by 600 beds over its current level. At $164 per person per night, such a mandate is a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars to hold individuals who pose no threat to the community and are facing only civil proceedings. Effective alternatives to detention cost 30 cents to $14 per detainee per day. Even the criminal justice system commonly uses an array of less-costly custody options, such as electronic monitoring and house arrest to meet pre-trial and post-sentencing needs.

In addition to expanding the bed quota, the Appropriations Committee added a requirement that ICE provide the committee with information about every detainee the agency administratively releases and ICE’s rationale for releasing each individual. This micro-managing approach is operationally infeasible and impractical. ICE detains more than 400,000 non-citizens each year and regularly uses a risk-assessment tool to determine the need to detain or release many of the individuals in its custody.

The committee’s vote contradicts statements and actions other members of Congress made in recent days to reduce the use of expensive and inhumane detention.

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In a House Judiciary Committee hearing, members on both sides of the aisle, including Reps. Mark Amodei (R-Nen.), Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), brought attention to the cost-savings and effectiveness of alternatives to detention, the need for access to counsel for children and mentally ill individuals, and the need for individualized assessments to determine whether a person should be detained, placed into an alternatives program or released. Witness Julie Myers Wood, former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under former President George W. Bush, strongly supported reform in these areas, maintaining that individuals on alternatives to detention appear at their court hearings 99 percent of the time and comply with judges’ orders 84 percent of the time. She also confirmed that individuals with counsel move through the system more quickly.

Also last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup and passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill yielded several important detention reforms that encourage ICE to rely less on detention as a means of immigration enforcement. The Senate bill includes provisions that require individualized assessments of the appropriate level of supervision, improve access to alternatives to detention and increase oversight of detention facilities. These reforms withstood harmful attacks in markup and were complemented by amendments that would limit the use of solitary confinement, create a centralized database to track detention and ensure that detained parents can arrange for childcare and participate in child welfare and family court proceedings.

The House Appropriations Committee’s bed mandate and unnecessarily cumbersome reporting requirements cripple ICE’s ability to exercise prosecutorial discretion, which all law enforcement agencies must have to prioritize and allocate resources according to public safety needs. These harmful appropriations provisions must be fixed on the House floor or in conference with the Senate so that common sense prevails and meaningful immigration detention reforms can see the light of day.

 

Bernstein Murray is the director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center.