U.S. government holding fewer immigrants in detention
A Border Patrol agent watches the U.S. border with Mexico on Aug. 25, 2010, near Nogales, Ariz. Photo by Jim Greenhill/Flickr

U.S. government holding fewer immigrants in detention

by Joanne Faryon

The number of immigrants being held in detention centers across the U.S. is the lowest it’s been in nearly a decade, possibly signaling a change in a federal mandate called a “bed quota.” 

Why this matters: Federal authorities are holding fewer immigrants in detention, representing a reversal in a decade-long upward trend of locking people up who are in the deportation process.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers range from stand alone prison-like facilities to county jails. They hold non-American citizens who are facing deportation for various reasons, including committing a crime or being in the country illegally.

Some members of Congress and high-ranking officials in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have insisted a line in a federal law mandating 34,000 detention beds across the country is actually a quota — requiring ICE to lock up a daily average of 34,000 people.

But the latest federal government figures show the average daily detainee population for the first five months of fiscal 2015 was 26,374. Last year, an average of more than 33,000 people were being held on a daily basis, and since 2007, the number has always been more than 30,000.

Average daily detainee population, 2005-2015. Graph by Leo Castaneda

Average daily detainee population, 2005-2015. Graph by Leo Castaneda

This decrease is a reversal in a trend that had the numbers of immigrants in detention increasing. It reflects state and federal policy changes, and possibly a change in the interpretation of the law mandating 34,000 detention beds available across the country.

Royce Murray, director of policy at the National Immigration Justice Center, which advocates for immigrants, sees the decline in the number of detainees as positive.

“We’re encouraged if every single bed is not full,”  Murray said.

Her group has also advocated for the federal government to put an end to the “bed quota,” which was added to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act in 2007.

The  law  introduced the idea of mandating a specific number of detention beds, 33,400, and later increased it to 34,000.

The Department of Homeland Security oversees ICE and Customs and Border Protection. Both agencies apprehend and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally or have committed a crime and face deportation. ICE is also charged with detaining the immigrants in about 250 facilities across the country if they’re viewed as a security or flight risk. Detention is meant to be a secure holding place while they wait for their cases to be decided by a judge, rather than punitive.

Last year, on average, immigrants spent 30 days in detention.

National news outlets drew attention to the bed mandate, calling it a “quota” in 2013, when ICE released more than 2,000 detainees to save money. At the time, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, wrote to the director of ICE, telling him by not filling all 34,000 detention beds he was “in clear violation of statute.”

And in 2013, in his written testimony to the House Committee on the Judiciary, ICE director John Morton also said his department was required to “maintain a yearly average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals.”

But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified at a budget committee last year with a different interpretation.

“I would interpret that (the mandate) to mean we have to maintain 34,000 detention beds. Some of those beds might be empty at any given time,” Johnson, who was sworn into office in late 2013, told the budget committee.

Murray said while her organization was encouraged by what Johnson said at the time, it was waiting to see whether his interpretation “trickled down to the field level.”

An ICE official in San Diego wouldn’t comment on whether Johnson’s interpretation was a change in the department’s policy but acknowledged the detainee population has declined “based on a variety of factors.”

They include a growing number of local police agencies refusing to hold immigrants for 48 hours while ICE determines whether it wants to detain or deport them — a program once called Secure Communities; an expanded use of detention alternatives such as ankle bracelets; and a change in enforcement policies because of President Barack Obama’s executive action.

Among the change in policies, the administration directed the DHS to focus on apprehending and deporting immigrants convicted of a felony or those known to be gang members. Under the president’s order, people who are in the country illegally, never committed a serious crime and who haven’t ignored previous deportation orders, “will not be priorities for removal.”

“Now there’s more of a focus on people with gang ties, perpetrators of domestic violence and perpetrators of trafficking crimes,” said Matt Holt, an immigration attorney and chairman of the San Diego chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“And those are the people who should be locked up,” Holt said.

But he said ICE continues to take people into custody who have never committed a crime, and who have been living productive lives in the community.

Last year, about 44 percent of detainees were not considered “criminals,” according to ICE statistics.

The bed mandate and a for-profit private prison model contribute to immigrants being detained rather than being given ankle bracelets, a much less expensive option, Holt said.

Two private prison companies operate some of the largest ICE detention centers, including the one in San Diego County. It costs about $125 a day to keep someone in detention, or about $2 billion a year to maintain the 34,000 beds.

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About Joanne Faryon:

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.
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