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The Tragic Costs of Immigration Detention

Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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October 19, 2011

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.

“Kimberly,” a South American mother of three who fled to America to escape an abusive husband, wound up imprisoned at the T. Don Hutto immigration detention center in Taylor, Texas after being captured by immigration authorities while crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico. After immigration officials determined she had a credible fear of persecution if she returned to her home country, Kimberly was granted her release.

But her exposure to the dark and largely secretive world of our nation’s immigration detention system was just beginning.

As she was being driven to the airport in Austin, Texas by an employee of Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison company that manages Hutto, she was sexually assaulted. Her driver, identified in court papers as Donald Dunn, pulled over to the side of a dimly lit road and told Kimberly, under the guise of a “search,” to lift up her arms and spread her legs, then lifted her shirt and began touching her breasts and grabbing between her legs. Dunn later ordered Kimberly to touch him.

Kimberly’s story epitomizes the tragic costs — both fiscal and human — of mass immigration detention, an immense lock-up system that subjects scores of individuals to unnecessary imprisonment and brutal and dehumanizing conditions of confinement every year, with taxpayers footing the bill. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union is making public for the first time information from documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that shows the breadth of the national problem of the sexual abuse of immigration detainees. The information is being made public in concert with the filing today by the ACLU of Texas of a federal class action damages lawsuit on behalf of Kimberly and two other immigrant women who were sexually assaulted while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Hutto, along with numerous others who experienced similar trauma.

Over the next two weeks, Huffington Post and the ACLU’s Blog of Rights will host a series exploring the immigration detention system and the harm it has caused countless children, men and women like Kimberly. Throughout this series, we will examine the causes of mass detention — such as ramped up federal immigration enforcement and prison privatization—and its consequences, including the needless detention of immigrants for months or years; the warehousing of mentally ill U.S. citizens; the rape and sexual abuse of immigrant women; and the deaths caused by deficient medical care.

Throughout, we will challenge readers to ask “why?” — why are we locking up immigrants in droves, at tremendous cost to families, communities and taxpayers, with little gain to public safety? Detention has reached crisis proportions, quintupling from 6,280 beds in 1996 to the current daily capacity of 33,400 beds. In 2010, DHS detained 363,000 people in over 250 facilities across the country. Detention is extremely expensive, costing taxpayers an estimated $166 to hold each detainee each day or $60,590 per detainee per year, or an average $5.5 million for the entire system every night. And despite the administration’s commitment to “detention reform,” there are no signs of shrinking. Indeed, the FY2012 budget requests more than $2 billion for detention, a record-high request representing a 6.3 percent increase over FY2011.

What we have bought with these billions is a lock-up system that violates basic rights and yields few benefits in return. Although detention is often justified as keeping “dangerous criminal aliens” off our streets, DHS itself acknowledges that the people in detention overwhelmingly pose no threat to our communities. Indeed, more than half of them have never been convicted of any crime, and those charged as being deportable based on a crime generally have non-violent or minor offenses. Nor is mass detention necessary to enforce our immigration laws with alternatives like telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits available to prevent flight from the authorities. Indeed, DHS’s Alternatives to Detention programs had a 93.8 % compliance rate in FY 2010 and at average of $8.88 per person per day.

Historic budget shortfalls are finally forcing policy-makers on the right and left to recognize that reducing mass incarceration makes fiscal sense and better protects our communities. It makes no sense to be expanding a comparable detention regime that costs too much in wasted dollars and ruined lives, and does little to make us safer. Our series seeks a reckoning with an immigration lock-up system that has spiraled out-of-control.

The Department of Homeland Security and ICE have consistently downplayed the problem of sexual assault of immigration detainees.

Urge President Obama and Attorney General Holder to make sure all immigration detainees have the full protection of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

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