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Biden pushes alternatives to migrant detention

The administration’s effort to expand alternative-to-detention programs gets mixed reviews


A migrant wears an ankle monitor bracelet at the Annunciation House on June 26, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. Associated Press/Photo by Matt York, file

Biden pushes alternatives to migrant detention

The Biden administration announced last month it will enroll hundreds of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in a home curfew pilot program in Baltimore, Md., and Houston, Texas. Migrants in the program must generally spend 12 hours a day at home, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., with exceptions for conflicting work schedules or other unusual situations.

While about 18,000 immigrants are held in detention centers around the United States, a much larger number — about 189,700 — participates in alternative-to-detention programs that employ tracking bracelets, smartphone apps, telephone reporting, and now home curfews.

High numbers of illegal migrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border have overwhelmed U.S. detention centers. Reports of dangerous overcrowding and inhumane conditions at facilities under the Trump administration prompted calls for change. Eighty percent of detained migrants are held in privately run, for-profit detention centers, and critics argue the companies should not profit from migrants who are seeking asylum. When President Joe Biden ran for election, his campaign promised he would end for-profit detention centers and “prioritize the safety and dignity of families above all.”

More than a year into his presidency, Biden has not closed for-profit detention facilities, but he has roughly doubled the number of migrants assigned to the alternative-to-detention programs, according to statistics compiled by Syracuse University. Although advocates of the alternative programs say they are cost-effective and compassionate, others argue the approach can still be inhumane.

U.S. law permits Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to detain illegal immigrants while their immigration cases are adjudicated. The Immigration and Nationality Act requires the Department of Homeland Security to hold migrants convicted of specified crimes, including drug crimes and aggravated felonies. To determine whether a migrant qualifies for an alternative-to-detention program, ICE considers an individual’s criminal and immigration history and whether the individual is a “flight risk” — likely to run and avoid a court date. The agency also takes into account humanitarian and medical concerns, supervision history, family and community ties, and whether the migrant is a caregiver or provider.

Theresa Brown with the Bipartisan Policy Center noted that alternative-to-detention programs often cost one-fifth as much as holding migrants in detention centers. Biden’s home curfew program will cost even less: $6 to $8 per enrollee per day, compared with the $142 daily cost for detention. Moreover, on a practical level, Brown noted that detention centers simply can’t hold everyone awaiting a court hearing. Though border officials immediately expel many migrants from the United States for coronavirus-related public health reasons, they continue to allow tens of thousands of others to enter the country. With a record-high backlog of immigration cases, the average migrant waits nearly three years for his or her next court proceeding. Brown argued that alternatives to detention such as ankle bracelets, phone tracking, and home curfew can help authorities track people and ensure they show up to court.

Others protest Biden’s push for electronic monitoring and home curfews. Twenty-five federal lawmakers led by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., called on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to overhaul the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), an alternative-to-detention surveillance program. BI Inc., a subsidiary of Geo Group — one of the largest private prison corporations in the country — manages the program. The company’s contract with the government requires the 182,000 migrants enrolled in the program to be supervised by at least one type of electronic monitoring. In their letter, the legislators argued the program has caused “physical and mental damages” to migrants who are electronically monitored for years and cannot fully participate in society.

Although Biden last year reiterated his promise to close existing detention centers, activists say he’s done little to achieve that goal. Six days after his inauguration, Biden issued an executive order directing the Department of Justice not to renew its contracts with private prisons. But his mandate said nothing about private detention centers for migrants. Though the number of people held in detention dropped during the pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that detentions have climbed by more than 50% since Biden took office, and the government is still issuing contracts to private detention facilities.

Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director for the Detention Watch Network, noted that renewed interest in funding for alternatives to detention generally results in more funding for traditional detention centers because the same companies run both programs: “The numbers go up together.” Instead of detention, Ghandehari argued, immigrants should be free to “navigate cases in community.”

The global nonprofit Bethany Christian Services has adopted a community-based approach through its Wraparound Stabilization Services, a program connecting migrant families with employment, education, and housing resources, as well as guiding them through the confusing court process.

Tawnya Brown, Bethany’s senior vice president of global refugee and immigrant services, emphasized that people who seek U.S. asylum are not breaking the law. Alternative-to-detention programs give migrants dignity, she said, and that’s better than locking them in “warehouses.” (She also noted the lower costs for U.S. taxpayers: Family case management only costs $38 per day per family, she said.)

Still, some proponents of the current policy say it would be a mistake to replace all detention centers with alternative-to-detention programs. The former acting director of ICE under the Trump administration, Tom Homan, said that for-profit detention is less expensive and more efficient than government-run detention centers. And while alternatives to detention may be cheaper per migrant day to day, such cases take longer to resolve since those migrants may not get court hearings for five to seven years. A migrant remains in detention for only 35 to 40 days, on average, and courts must prioritize detention cases, according to a memorandum issued by the Executive Office for Immigration Review in 2018.

Homan argued alternatives to detention are not necessarily more compassionate. A judge may decide to remove a migrant who has been living in the country under supervision for years. By then, a mom could have two to three kids, he noted, and the whole process becomes more “emotional and controversial.”

Whether or not it pushes to close detention centers, the Biden administration will continue to push for the alternative programs. Biden plans to expand his pilot program in Houston and Baltimore to a nationwide home curfew program, and he’ll ask Congress for funding to enroll an additional 400,000 heads of households in home curfew and other alternative-to-detention programs.


Addie Michaelian

Addie Michaelian is a reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a graduate of Westmont College and World Journalism Institute.

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