'Alternatives To Detention' Are Cheaper Than Jails, But Cases Take Far Longer The Trump administration faces the same challenge as its predecessors: if you cannot detain immigrant families, how do you ensure they show up for hearings and deportation?
NPR logo

'Alternatives To Detention' Are Cheaper Than Jails, But Cases Take Far Longer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/629496174/630246573" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Alternatives To Detention' Are Cheaper Than Jails, But Cases Take Far Longer

'Alternatives To Detention' Are Cheaper Than Jails, But Cases Take Far Longer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/629496174/630246573" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The immigration issue has President Trump wrestling with the same challenge as past presidents - how to ensure the tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrant families who are apprehended each year show up for their immigration hearings. Trump wants to lock more of them up. Immigrant advocates want him to keep using alternatives to detention. NPR's John Burnett has more on this part of the debate.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Inside the Greyhound station in San Antonio are dozens of Central American mothers with bulges on their ankles under their government-issued jeans. These women entered the country illegally, spent time in detention and were released with a black, plastic, blinking GPS device strapped onto their ankles so the government can keep track of them.

MARI: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Mari says she fled to the U.S. to escape gang violence in Guatemala. When she reaches her destination of Miami, she says she plans to follow orders and check in with the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Mari is one of about 84,000 undocumented migrants who's on electronic monitoring - usually either an ankle bracelet or a smartphone check-in that uses voice recognition. The Obama administration and now Trump would have preferred to detain Mari and her three kids indefinitely.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: But a court order forces the government to release families after three weeks in detention for the welfare of the children. Concertina wire is in vogue under this president. The administration is paying for 40,000 private contracted detention beds this year - a 3 percent increase over last year. There's a mammoth new immigrant jail under construction near Houston. And recently, the administration has proposed detaining thousands of immigrant families on military bases.

TRACEY VALERIO: Certainly confinement sends a very, very strong message.

BURNETT: Tracey Valerio was a top ICE official until April of this year, overseeing the agency's budget.

VALERIO: But the agency has had extremely good results in terms of percentage of compliance with the alternatives to detention.

BURNETT: All detention, especially family detention, is expensive. The government pays a private jail contractor about $320 per night - as much as a five-star hotel - to detain a mother and her children in what ICE calls a family residential center. Compare that to an electronic ankle monitor at $4.12 a day. Sarah Saldana was chief of ICE for the last two years of Obama's presidency. She thinks expensive immigrant detention should be used more selectively.

SARAH SALDANA: A nursing mother waiting for months for a ultimate hearing is not a threat to public safety. A member of a drug cartel who has been in the country illegally and has been apprehended by ICE is a threat to public safety.

BURNETT: ICE declined to go on record for this report. A spokesman said in an email that ATDs - alternatives to detention - have a 99.8 percent success rate, but this is key. They're most effective at getting the participant to their immigration hearings. If the migrant loses their asylum request and is ordered deported, then ankle monitors are not as successful at bringing about final removal. And deportation is how ICE keeps score. Figures with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration courts, show that 4 out of 10 non-detained immigrants do not show up for their final removal. Some are absconding. But there's another explanation for why there are so few deportations of immigrants on ATDs each year versus more deportations of detained immigrants.

JOHN SANDWEG: Those little numbers are not because people are failing to appear or cutting off their bracelets and running. Those little numbers are because those cases are not prioritized, and they just linger on the docket for years and years and years.

BURNETT: John Sandweg was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement during 2013 and 2014.

SANDWEG: Another way of doing this that is far, far cheaper, far more humane but just as, you know, strong on the immigration enforcement component...

BURNETT: As he explains it, the Justice Department, which is over the immigration courts, has chosen to put people on ATDs at the end of the line. They're on what's called the non-detain docket.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Which is so backlogged that it takes years for these cases to be heard and resolved.

BURNETT: Jessica Vaughan is policy director with the Center for Immigration Studies, which embraces Trump's immigration agenda and supports more detention for people in the country illegally.

VAUGHAN: Whereas if people are kept in government custody, they are on a different docket that moves much more quickly. And they can be resolved in a matter of weeks rather than years.

BURNETT: Here's an eye-popping number. Today there are more than 2 1/2 million immigrants on the non-detain docket compared to just over 44,000 immigrants on the detain docket. Immigrants in detention go to the front of the line, and they're deported sooner. John Sandweg says that's why detention remains politically popular.

SANDWEG: And so this kind of misnomer has been formed in Washington that the only way to actually enforce our immigration laws is to detain people.

BURNETT: This former ICE director has a solution - continue to use alternatives to detention but hire more immigration judges to grind through the massive case backlog. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.