The Department of Homeland Security assumes that mass detention is the key to immigration enforcement. But in fact, our detention system locks up thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers. Throughout the next two weeks, check back daily for posts about the costs of immigration detention, both human and fiscal, and what needs to be done to ensure fair and humane policy.
Amidst all the talk of immigration reform and the need to secure our borders, it's easy to forget that our government already imprisons thousands of immigrants for months, often years, in several hundred immigration detention centers scattered across the United States.
Take, for example, the Reverend Raymond Soeoth, a Christian minister who fled Muslim majority Indonesia with his wife after the couple faced persecution for practicing their faith. When his asylum application was denied in 2004, the U.S. government incarcerated Reverend Soeoth at an immigration detention center in Los Angeles. Even though he posed no danger or flight risk and had never been convicted of any crime, he spent over two and a half years in detention while the courts decided whether to reconsider his asylum claim.
Sadly, despite the Department of Homeland Security's claims that such prolonged detention is reserved for the worst of the worst, all too often thousands of immigrants like Reverend Soeoth wind up in immigration detention. Nearly half of those detained have never been convicted of any crime, while many others were convicted of minor offenses long ago, and are detained years later by immigration authorities trying to deport them based on those old offenses.
Remarkably, during those two and a half years, immigration authorities never afforded Reverend Soeoth the most basic element of due process — a hearing before a judge to determine whether his detention was necessary. He was separated from his wife, who was forced to shutter the corner store they ran together, and his congregation, all because our government would not give him a 15 minute bond hearing before a judge. In February 2007, after the ACLU filed suit, a federal court ordered such a hearing for Reverend Soeoth. The judge decided that he presented no danger or risk of flight and ordered him released on bond. Since that time he has reunited with his wife and congregation, rebuilt his life and will likely be granted asylum soon.
The human tragedy created by the detention of Reverend Soeoth and thousands of others like him is made even worse by its exorbitant cost. As taxpayers, we spend $45,000 per detainee per year — a total of $1.9 billion in the past fiscal year — with $100 million more than that requested for the fiscal year 2012 budget, needlessly imprisoning many people who present no threat to our society. As the public debates the merits of shrinking the size of government and bringing the scope of federal power in line with constitutional constraints, we should seriously consider proposals that ensure due process for immigrants by placing reasonable limits on their prolonged detention. Our most basic values as a free country demand an end to the needless of detention of Reverend Soeoth and the thousands of others who deserve better from this great nation.
The ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project receives hundreds of letters each month from individuals inside immigration detention who have been locked up for years, fighting their cases to remain in the United States. Many of them are refugees, lawful permanent residents with US citizen family members, and others who pose no threat to the community.
You can read some of their letters here.