Opinion | The Unnecessary Cruelty of America’s Immigration System

While ending immigrant detention is first and foremost a matter of human rights, it is also an economic imperative. Since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, the federal government has spent an estimated $333 billion on immigration enforcement. In 2018, it spent almost $3.1 billion on detention alone. While it costs taxpayers roughly $134 a day to keep someone in a detention center, the alternatives, such as case management and electronic monitoring, cost an average of roughly $6 each day.

And yet our government routinely declines to use these alternative measures. According to the government’s own policies, asylum seekers who can prove their identity and demonstrate that they do not pose a flight risk or threat to public safety should be released.

But in certain jurisdictions, judges or ICE agents summarily reject these applications — a trend that skyrocketed in the Trump administration as emboldened ICE officers rejected whole caseloads. In 2018, ICE’s New Orleans field office, for instance, denied more than 98 percent of parole applications.

Admittedly, the current alternatives to detention in the United States are far from perfect with respect to human rights. Many people are released from detention with uncomfortable and stigmatizing ankle bracelets; in rural locations, they must travel hundreds of miles each week, with limited transportation or funds, to meet with their ICE officers or, in rare instances, caseworkers, who are not always supportive or helpful. But these alternatives could be greatly improved and better monitored — at a small fraction of the human and economic cost of maintaining a sprawling network of detention centers.

In spite of being a prime candidate for parole, M. was kept in detention for roughly 18 months before he was deported in May 2020 without warning, after a Covid outbreak in his facility. (He is now fighting his asylum case from Honduras.) Even he was surprised he lasted that long inside. Detention is made to break people.

As standard as it has become for our country to imprison people seeking refuge within our borders, it is worth remembering just how new immigration detention is in the span of human history. The world’s first detention center devoted entirely to immigrants was Ellis Island, “the island that,” as the French novelist Georges Perec wrote, “in every European tongue / had been renamed the isle of tears.” The second of its kind was Angel Island, a sentinel prison in the San Francisco Bay, at the other end of “the land of the free,” where, between 1910 and 1940, immigrants mostly from East Asia were detained.

The United States, then, a country whose founding mythologies are rooted in freedom and protection from tyranny, invented immigration detention — a creation that is tremendously costly to human life, to the human psyche and the national spirit and to taxpayers. And it’s one that, given all these alternatives, we need never have created in the first place.


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