Detention alternatives


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Up next on the World and Everything in It: Alternatives to detention.

In November 2017, ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reported that its total average daily population for 2018 was more than 39,000 people.

That’s the second year in a row that the number of immigrants in detention facilities reached a record high.

NICK EICHER, HOST: ICE detains those immigrants at its nearly 1,500 adult detention centers around the country.

Only 15 percent are classified as posing the highest threat and more than half are classified as either non-criminal or no threat at all.

But because of massive backlogs in the immigration courts,  many immigrants can find themselves spending years in these detention centers awaiting trial.

REICHARD: As lawmakers debate what to do, WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke to immigrant advocates who say the answer is simple. Don’t put them in detention. Here’s her report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Immigration advocates and ICE have been piloting alternatives to detention since the 1990s.

The first alternative is GPS monitoring through ankle bracelets. Ankle bracelets allow ICE to keep track of immigrants outside detention centers while their cases are pending. Immigrants with bracelets have to make sure it never turns off, check in with ICE at mandated times and can’t leave an allocated region.

ICE can release immigrants in less restrictive ways. One way is on bond. It’s similar to the prison bail system. ICE or a judge sets a bond amount and if a detainee can pay, she can be released.

ICE also can release detainees on parole by completing a flight risk assessment.

Magdalena fled violence in Guatemala with her three children. Her husband was already living in Los Angeles.

SERRANO: She doesn’t speak English, so I’ll translate. La Seniorita esta Hola, coma esta? Translation: Everything is good.  

Jose Serrano is with World Relief, the NGO providing legal and social services to Magdalena and others. Magdalena and her children stayed in detention for several weeks. She describes what it was like.

SERRANO: There were times where it was extremely hot, there were times when it was extremely cold. There was always an officer hovering over them. The children just kept crying saying, “We want to be with our father. When can we leave now?” It was not comfortable.

After the family’s release, Magdalena had to wear an ankle bracelet for four months. Serrano and other volunteers made sure she understood how to comply with ICE’s requirements. After that, ICE determined she wasn’t a flight risk and removed the bracelet. She’s still waiting for an immigration hearing, and she checks in regularly with ICE.

SERRANO: If they allow me to stay here, that’s what I wish for in life.

Although ankle bracelets and risk assessments work, some immigrant advocates prefer a community-support model. That’s where ICE releases asylum-seekers and immigrants into the care of nonprofits or faith communities, trusting that under community supervision, immigrants won’t flee.

Seth Kaper-Dale pastors the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey. His church supervised a group of Indonesian Christians that came to the U.S. on travel visas in the late 1990s. They were fleeing violence at the hands of Muslim extremists. Once the group arrived, it never left but didn’t seek legal asylum.

After the men voluntarily reported themselves, immigration officials denied all their asylum claims, and in 2006, ICE agents raided the apartment complex where most of the immigrants lived. They took three dozen men.

In order to help those men stay out of detention, Kaper-Dale told ICE his church would make sure they checked in regularly with ICE. In 2009, the agency agreed.  

KAPER-DALE: We just had to vouch for them and in our word was taken seriously.

Kaper-Dale says from 2009 on, he doesn’t know of a single man who missed a check-in with ICE.

KAPER-DALE: And if anybody didn’t, it wasn’t anything that raised concern enough for ICE to ever reach out to, to talk to me about it.

Detention advocates say it’s the only way to ensure immigrants will show up for their court proceedings. Justice Department data show that over the last five years 60 to 75 percent of non-detained migrants have attended their immigration court proceedings.

Christina Fialho (Fee-al-ho) of Freedom for Immigrants says those numbers are significantly higher for those enrolled in community programs.

FIALHO: Studies that have been done in partnership with the federal government has shown that 93 to 95 percent of the asylum seekers and even people with past criminal convictions show up for their immigration hearings when they are enrolled in one of these community programs.

Fialho says besides keeping families together, community programs are significantly cheaper. ICE currently spends more than $2 billion dollars per year detaining immigrants.

FIALHO A pilot program that was conducted in 2015, found that it costs only $50 a day for a family to receive housing and wraparound services compared to about $800 per day that it costs taxpayers right now for a family to be in prison.

Fialho says to start community-support models on a broad scale, the government can give funds to N-G-Os instead of detention centers.

FIALHO: Communities have always been able to do things more efficient than the federal government. And this is no exception.

These alternatives still aren’t widely discussed in the media or by lawmakers, but it’s not just activists pushing for them. Yesterday 45 law enforcement leaders sent a letter to congressional leaders. The letter urged them to consider proven detention alternatives that keep families together and save taxpayers money.

And in the meantime, President Trump has called for 15-thousand more beds to house detained families.

Seth Kaper-Dale says he hopes more immigrants and asylum seekers will be able to  stay out of detention and with their families. He’s seen the benefits.

KAPER-DALE: First of all, you raise your own children. Second of all, you pay your own rent. Third of all, kids have food on the table. Fouth, your kids have stability in education. These are people who are taking care of themselves, and their families and, and contributing to the community.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


(AP Photo/David J. Phillip) A U.S. Border Patrol truck enters the Port Isabel Detention Center, which holds detainees of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in Los Fresnos, Texas. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. 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 WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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