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.