The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency released "several hundred" immigrants from detention facilities across the United States late last month in an effort to stay within its budget amid "fiscal uncertainty" related to the so-called sequester. More immigrants are expected to be freed soon. This is a good thing: The agency detains about 400,000 men, women and children per year, most of whom pose no threat to the United States.
Sequester fallout or not, the releases prove what critics have said for years: Detention — an arduous, sometimes lengthy and even dangerous experience — is not always necessary.
My 81-year-old uncle Joseph was taken into custody at the Miami airport in October 2004 after he requested asylum. Joseph was a throat cancer survivor with high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate. Although he had a valid visa and passport, and the airport is only about 15 minutes from my home, where my husband and I were ready to receive him, Joseph was sent to a detention facility. Rather than being released into our care until his status could be determined, he was jailed — and his prescribed medications were taken away. He died five days later. My uncle was neither a flight risk nor a danger to society. Had he been released into our care, he might still be alive.
Detention is also not a fiscally responsible method of law enforcement: It costs taxpayers as much as $164 a day to detain immigrants, the National Immigration Forum noted in August. Alternatives to detention include home visits, curfew restrictions and electronic monitoring, some of which cost as little as $14 per day, the group says.
Many who are detained have relatives who are U.S. citizens or residents. Some, while incarcerated, have been in contact with civic and religious organizations that would shelter and support these people through their deportation or asylum cases. So why not let them? The American Bar Association noted in 2010 that 84 percent of detained immigrants — including children and people with mental and physical disabilities — were going through the deportation process with no legal counsel. Although it is a fundamental principle of this country that everyone should get a fair hearing in court, thousands of would-be immigrants languish in detention centers for months without appearing before a judge who will determine whether they should be detained at all.
Part of the problem lies with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the categories of immigrants required to be detained upon arrival in the United States — categories that include those known to be terrorist suspects but also those who arrive without documentation or with fraudulent papers. Congress has required that a certain number of beds — more than 30,000, as of fiscal 2012 — be made available for detainees. But the requirement has been interpreted by immigration officials and some lawmakers as a "bed mandate" — requiring tens of thousands of immigrants to be detained every day simply because the beds have been made available. Customs officials are effectively prevented from making detention decisions based on their agency's needs. Until the mandate is repealed, the government will continue wasting millions of taxpayer dollars detaining broadly defined classes of people — many of whom, like my uncle, have demonstrated no reason to be locked up.
Last spring, U.S. officials at the Texas border apprehended Carmen, a woman seeking safety from an abusive partner. Carmen had survived not just domestic violence but also a machete attack by another assailant that almost ended her life. When she was taken into custody, Carmen suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A friend who is a U.S. citizen was ready to take her in. But Carmen — now a client of Americans for Immigrant Justice — was detained at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida for nine months. She was finally released, wearing an ankle-monitoring device, in late February — along with four other survivors of domestic violence who were seeking asylum in this country. Had the sequester not incited budget concerns, Carmen and the others would probably still be languishing.
Congress is holding hearings this week and next on immigration enforcement. Immigration and homeland security officials have already been criticized by some lawmakers for releasing a small percentage of their most vulnerable, low-risk detainees last month. One hopes that lawmakers concerned about both fiscal responsibility and immigration reform will engage in discussions more substantive than "giving illegals a free pass." The country must take on real issues, such as eliminating the outdated bed mandate, so that immigrants who pose no danger to U.S. communities can wait for their day in court under more humane and less costly conditions.
Edwidge Danticat is a writer in Miami. Her most recent work is "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work."