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This next story - wow. Imagine your city council telling the police department how many people the police had to keep in jail each night. Sort of like a quota for traffic tickets, only it's a quota for human detentions. That's effectively what Congress has told ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The detention bed mandate, as it's known, calls for filling 34,000 beds in some 250 immigration-detention facilities across the country.

From Arizona, NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the financial and human cost.

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TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Hundreds of men, nearly all from Latin America, line up for a hamburger lunch at the Federal Detention Center in Florence, Ariz. They were caught by the Border Patro, or away from the border by local police and ICE. People can stay here behind the razor-wire fence for days, weeks or years. We weren't allowed to talk with anyone in the detention center, but Francisco Rincon was recently released from Florence on bond.

FRANCISCO RINCON: (Foreign language spoken)

ROBBINS: He was in Florence three weeks, and every day he was in detention cost taxpayers at least $120. Add up all the nation's detention centers, and that's more than $2 billion a year. The detention bed mandate, which began in 2009, is just part of the massive increase in enforcement-only policies over the last two decades. That's a problem for people who see detention as costly and inhumane. Supporters include House Appropriations chair Hal Rogers. The Kentucky Republican wrote in an email that the bed mandate is, quote, "intended to compel the agency to enforce existing immigration law."

Former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano called the bed mandate artificial. She spoke to a House Appropriations Committee earlier this year.

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JANET NAPOLITANO: We ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not to an arbitrary number.

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ROBBINS: Immigrants in detention range from violent criminals to people without any criminal history. On the day I visited Florence, nearly two-thirds of the 400 detainees had no known criminal record. Take Francisco Rincon. He came to the U.S. from Mexico eight years ago, had no trouble with the law; then was arrested by the Border Patrol near Tucson, when he took a wrong turn on his way home from work as a day laborer. Rincon now has a hearing before an immigration judge in February. He says he'll ask to remain in the U.S. legally.

RINCON: (Through interpreter) For people of Mexican citizenship, and particularly from the area where I'm from - which is Chiapas - it is very hard to obtain a visa, and so otherwise we would come through visas, but it's very hard to obtain those.

ROBBINS: That kind of story upsets immigrant-rights activists. They say ICE and local police departments are arresting more and more people for less and less. Nina Rabin is an immigration law professor at the University of Arizona.

NINA RABIN: They're trying to pick people up for either very minor traffic violations, or other minor convictions that wouldn't be considered serious but that they can quantify as a criminal alien.

ROBBINS: Immigration hardliners not only disagree with that contention, they want even more aggressive enforcement. They say the current detention system is too lax, and they point to a startling statistic. As of last month, 870,000 immigrants had absconded after being ordered deported following release from detention. They've gone back underground. ICE confirms that number. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, some of the immigrants cited in the 870,000 statistic had not been detained prior to their absconding.]

Jessica Vaughan is with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think-tank which favors tougher enforcement. She says the only way to make sure people ordered deported actually leave is to keep them under lock and key.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Detention is necessary because of the high risk that people are simply going to flee, or skip out on their hearings.

VICTOR CERDA: That's very simplistic. It's very expensive. It's very resource-intensive.

ROBBINS: Victor Cerda was ICE's head of detention and removal during part of the George W. Bush administration. He agrees detention is the surest way to hold people, but he says building tens of thousands more detention beds is unrealistic.

CERDA: If you know what the problem is and the complexity of it, you quickly realize that there is not enough money in the government. And I don't think the taxpayers are ready to fork over the amount necessary to detain everybody.

ROBBINS: There are options besides locking up tens of thousands of people - alternative forms of supervision, from GPS-monitored ankle bracelets to routinely checking in with ICE. Those alternatives can cost less than $10 a day. The budget for alternatives, though, is only about 3 percent of the budget for detention.

The immigration bill passed by the Senate earlier this year calls for more use of alternatives to detention. The House has yet to pass immigration reform. It reinforced the status quo in June, voting down a Democratic-sponsored end to the detention bed mandate.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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