It is time to phase out immigration detention. Detention is inhumane and needlessly punitive. It seriously impedes a noncitizen’s ability to access legal representation and to be afforded due process in immigration proceedings. Detention is extremely costly and serves only the private prison companies and municipalities benefiting massively from the subjugation of those in custody.
The surveillance-oriented “alternatives to detention” the government has invested in for years do not provide a meaningful way to end detention. These “ATDs,” as they are known, rely on harsh systems like painful and intrusive ankle monitors, and include either extremely limited or no legal or social services. Such ATDs are premised on the idea that unless immigrants feel threatened and tracked, they will fail to appear for their immigration proceedings. This could not be further from the truth. As a recent report by Ingrid Eagly, demonstrates, a large majority—83% of immigrants—do indeed show up for their court hearings. Having legal representation makes it all but certain that an immigrant will appear for court hearings – a staggering 96% of immigrants with attorneys appear for all immigration court hearings. The report underlines that immigrants with attorneys are more likely to apply for and receive immigration relief. Providing people with legal counsel is one important way to ensure that they appear for, and are able to participate meaningfully in, their immigration proceedings.
Supporting migrants navigating the U.S. immigration system need not involve incarceration or surveillance. In late 2020, the American Immigration Council (the Council) and Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) conducted a survey of nearly 250 organizations that provide community support services to immigrants. This survey showed that there is already critical expertise and capacity nationwide to provide a broad range of necessary services to those in the immigration process. With additional funding, this capacity could be expanded. A factsheet published by the Council and WRC in late February includes a detailed analysis of the survey findings, and provides a snapshot of the extent of support that community-based organizations provide to migrants in the immigration process.
The hundreds of organizations that responded to the survey provide legal, medical, mental health, social, transportation, housing, educational, repatriation, and other services that can and should replace immigration detention altogether. These organizations are by no means the only organizations providing such services – but they provide a helpful snapshot of the breadth of support currently available to migrants navigating the immigration system.
More than two thirds of responding organizations indicated a strong interest in expanding capacity to meet the increased demands due to COVID-19 and to expected changes in policy under the Biden administration; many organizations cited funding constraints as a reason they have not expanded. Robust governmental funding of such organizations would allow them to expand their own capacity, and would help them strengthen their ability to coordinate effectively with other organizations. Many organizations do not offer every service, so strong coordination and referral mechanisms will be important.
The infrastructure needed to move away from immigration detention and surveillance to supportive services is already in place. Instead of pumping millions of taxpayer dollars into the private prison companies and municipalities that today realize large profits from the needless suffering of people in detention, the government could spend far less money to expand the services of trusted and established organizations who already have the know-how and experience to support individuals in navigating the immigration system. Unlike the companies and municipalities that push for detention as a way to reap profit, these organizations prioritize the health and safety of those in their care and adhere to America’s values as a welcoming nation while doing so.