Following a series of failures to pass comprehensive immigration reform for the past three decades, it’s only natural to wonder: When it comes to immigration, is there anything Americans can agree on?
Indeed, there is — a cheaper, effective, and more humane alternative for the tens of thousands of children and adults who continue to be held in detention facilities solely because of their migration status. For voters who care most deeply about the humane treatment of migrant children and families, alternatives to detention (ATDs) offer a solution that respects migrants’ fundamental rights. For those focused on the budget, evidence demonstrates that ATDs are far more cost-effective than detention, while nevertheless ensuring immigration laws are implemented successfully. And as our new data shows, countries worldwide have already put these solutions into practice. So how can we get everyone on board — and what would it take to make it happen in the U.S.?
The human rights case for ending immigration detention is clear. Detained migrant children, as well as those separated from their families, commonly experience anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children and adults housed in crowded conditions also face higher risks of a wide range of communicable diseases; between January 2017 and March 2020 alone, 22 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers reported 79 outbreaks of influenza, varicella or mumps. And beyond the health consequences, detained children are commonly denied access to education, threatening their development and long-term opportunities. International treaties ratified by the U.S. are clear that mandating detention based solely on migration status violates the right to liberty, while the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged that “any kind of child immigration detention should be forbidden by law.”
Yet the economic case is similarly compelling. ICE’s 2021 budget included over $2.8 billion —nearly $8 million per day — for “Custody Operations”; at the same time, the overall budgets of ICE and Customs and Border Protection have nearly tripled since 2003. Meanwhile, evidence from both the U.S. and other high-income countries shows that alternatives to detention that allow migrant families to live in the community while their cases are pending are not only effective but far cheaper than detention. For example, a short-lived ATD piloted in the U.S., the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), provided 952 asylum-seeking families with referrals to medical and legal services, English classes and assistance with documentation, among other social supports. In addition to maintaining family unity and treating migrant families humanely, FCMP costs just $38.47 per family, per day, compared to between $237.60 and $318.79 for family detention — all while achieving a 99 percent compliance rate with immigration court requirements.
So let’s agree to spend less and do better. If we cut what we’re spending on immigration detention by 80 percent and reallocate half of the remaining budget to programs like FCMP, we can ensure the integrity and effectiveness of our immigration system while also respecting migrants’ humanity. This isn’t that radical: ICE was only established in 2003, and if almost two decades later the evidence is clear that there are approaches that are effective and better for people at one-eighth to one-sixth of the cost, we shouldn’t hesitate to change course and free up hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.
The U.S. should also adopt legislation prioritizing ATDs to guide budget decisions in the future. We would be far from the first country to do so. In a new study of 150 countries’ laws that we published this week, we found that nearly three-quarters of high-income countries have adopted laws prohibiting or limiting the detention of children migrating or seeking asylum accompanied by family. Strong protections are also found in countries across income groups: Costa Rica, for example, bans all detention of child migrants and explicitly provides for ATDs in legislation.
In the U.S., while conditions of detention have varied by administration, large-scale immigration detention — including of children — is a longstanding issue. And though case law — specifically, the Flores v. Reno settlement, which emerged from a class-action lawsuit initiated in 1985 — has offered important protections, it lacks adequate enforcement mechanisms and is no substitute for detailed legislation prohibiting the detention of migrant children in all circumstances and adopting permanent, social services-based ATDs.
To be sure, not all ATDs are created equal. Currently, what ICE calls an ATD — a program that for many requires continuous electronic surveillance through ankle monitors — is not really an “alternative” at all, but an additional set of conditions imposed on migrants who are released from detention after a determination that they pose minimal risk of absconding. ICE’s use of this approach in recent years has thus neither reduced detention numbers nor cut costs the way a genuine ATD would. Moreover, these invasive technologies have been repeatedly condemned by U.N. agencies. Moving forward with legislation to establish permanent ATDs in the U.S. will require careful attention to the details and input from affected communities; however, U.S. policymakers need not start from scratch, as numerous other countries have demonstrated the feasibility of true alternatives that prioritize the dignity of all people.
Immigrants are the U.S.’s strength: they drive the economy, make immeasurable contributions to our culture, and fuel critical innovation and entrepreneurship. And even as Americans diverge on some aspects of policy, the value of immigration is an area of widespread consensus: according to recent Gallup polls, 77 percent of Americans agree that immigration is a good thing for the country, while 81 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Alternatives to detention reflect these widely shared values and make good financial sense. That’s something we can all agree on.
Jody Heymann is a distinguished professor in the Faculties of Public Affairs and Public Health at UCLA and founding director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center.
Aleta Sprague is an attorney and senior legal analyst at WORLD.