This morning I saw a link to a piece in The Nation which made the claim that the ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is required by law to detain a quota of 34,000 illegal immigrants at any given time. I was suspicious of this because the quota was apparently that the ICE fund 34,000 "beds" which suggested to me that what that quota actually dealt with was capacity, not the necessity of detaining 34,000 people at a time whether they needed to be detained or not.
However, after some poking around, it appears that one does not necessarily do well to defend the rationality of the Federal government. Here's the most exhaustive piece I was able to find on the detention quota. In some sense, it sounds like my instinct was correct. The law allocates funds to pay for 34,000 beds worth of detention space. However, apparently the ICE (and some members of congress) believe that they must actually have 34,000 people in detention at any given time. Obviously, it's not very hard for law enforcement to detain 34,000 people out of the estimated 10 million people in the US illegally at any given time, but there's something particularly obnoxious about the idea of requiring a specific number of detentions regardless of need.
Some of this sounds like cushy government boondoggle:
Some of the additional money provided by Congress will be spent filling beds at places such as the brightly painted Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened here last year amid bobbing oil derricks on the rolling plains south of San Antonio. It holds more than 600 detainees, but ICE prefers not to call them that.
They are “residents,” guarded by unarmed “resident advisers,” and they sleep in air-conditioned, unlocked “suites” with flat-screen TVs overlooking volleyball courts and soccer fields. The low-security facility, built and operated on the government’s behalf by a private contractor, the GEO Group, offers computer labs, libraries and microwaves for making popcorn.
“This place is great,” said one young man from Honduras, strumming a government-issued bass guitar in a recreation room, along with newfound band mates from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Most detainees here are Central American migrants picked up along the border. Having requested asylum, they await an ICE interview to determine if they have a legitimate fear of returning home.
In the meantime, they can earn $3 a day working on cleaning crews or in the laundry room, and there are free English classes, “life skills” instruction and tutorials in Microsoft Word and Excel. They dine in a cafeteria cheerfully appointed with Southwestern art and Georgia O’Keefe prints.
The jail has become a showcase for improved detention conditions, especially as ICE relies less on the low-cost bed space offered by aging, rural county jails and signs contacts with for-profit private detention companies that include incentives such as guaranteed minimum-occupancy payments.
Congress’s expanding detention goals have been a boon to the contractors, especially Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America.
A significant portion of those detained by the ICE are criminals, though in many cases ones who could be dealt with safely at lower cost than jailing them:
Of the 33,391 immigrants held in federal custody on Sept. 7 — a single-day snapshot provided by ICE — 19,864 were convicted criminals, according to the agency.While all this makes the quote sound less irrational than the (unsurprisingly) heavily slanted Nation article, it still sounds likely that this involves both spending more money than necessary and jailing (however humanely) people who don't need to be jailed. (And that's leaving aside the point that we'd be better off simply having a looser immigration policy generally. While I want to see respect for the law as much as the next fellow, the lowness of the immigration quotas and the difficulty of the process practically encourages illegal immigration.)
Yet ICE’s definition of criminals includes a broad range of offenders, and a 2009 internal review found that only 11 percent of detainees had been convicted of violent crimes.
Jose Luis Vargas, a legal U.S. resident since 1986, was arrested by San Antonio police three years ago after neighbors reported a marijuana plant growing in his garden, among his tomatoes and prickly pear cactus.
Immigrant rights advocates say detainees such as Vargas, who was two years shy of paying off the 30-year mortgage on his San Antonio home, should be allowed to remain under cheaper, less severe forms of ICE supervision, such as GPS-enabled electronic monitoring.
Those alternatives can cost less than $10 a day, they say, while the cost of keeping someone in immigration jail exceeds $150.
“The explicit purpose of ICE detaining people is to make sure they show up for their immigration hearings, so it would make sense to consider less costly, more humane alternatives that meet that same goal,” said Ruthie Epstein, legislative policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.