THE Northwest Detention Center is a large, privately operated detention facility in the Tacoma Tideflats that has been in the news a lot this past year. Despite multiple hunger strikes, public protests and the introduction of federal legislation to address issues at the facility, immigration officials are set to sign another multimillion-dollar contract with the same private prison company that has run it for years.
Due in large part to a misguided federal policy called the “detention bed mandate,” large, for-profit prison corporations that have the resources to build and maintain detention centers are left in charge of operating these facilities at a high cost to taxpayers, detainees and families of those affected.
In the United States, GEO Group, the company that runs the detention center, and the Corrections Corporation of America are the only two corporations large enough to bid on a contract like the Tacoma facility. That leaves us with a detention policy that benefits them, but not society.
The detention bed mandate, which was passed by Congress in 2009, requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to fill 34,000 detention beds for immigrants at any given time. Rather than targeting enforcement toward individuals who pose risks to our community, this indiscriminate quota incentivizes the inhumane and arbitrary detention of thousands for whom we have no justifiable reason to detain.
Take Ramon Mendoza Pascual, for example. In September 2013, Ramon had a few beers at a bar in Auburn and walked to his car to go home. Realizing he shouldn’t risk driving, he called his wife, Veronica Noriega, for a ride home and waited in his car. When she arrived, he was gone. She was told later that Mendoza had been arrested on suspicion of DUI.
Despite the fact a judge had dropped the DUI charge, when Noriega went to court to pay her husband’s bail, she was told Mendoza could not be freed. ICE had placed a hold on his case and he was being transferred to the Tacoma detention facility.
Ramon was a carpenter, a volunteer for a local charity, a husband and a father of three young children. But on that day all that mattered to ICE was his immigration status. He is neither a flight risk nor a danger, but he’s now been detained at the facility for 18 months and can only see his family through a window.
Not only is this overuse of detention inhumane, it’s also expensive. Since the passage of the detention bed mandate, the use of detention has skyrocketed to around 450,000 people detained every year. At an estimated cost of $164 per day for each detainee, our government spends approximately $5.5 million a day and more than $2 billion a year on the detention of immigrants.
There are many less wasteful alternatives to detention that exist and offer a more fair, cost-effective and humane approach while still ensuring that more than 90 percent of individuals appear at immigration proceedings.
Community-based support programs are one such alternative that have proved successful. These are programs where nonprofits provide immigrants with legal services, case management, housing and more while they await immigration proceedings in their own homes, rather than in a detention center. A Baltimore-based immigration advocacy group, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, has piloted community-based programs in the past and has built coalitions with local service partners in Seattle and elsewhere that provide important support and services at fractions of the cost of detention.
Other alternatives include telephonic reporting and release on bond, enabling individuals to remain in their communities and with their families at costs averaging $5.16 per day, according to ICE. The stark contrast between $5.16 and the $164 per day it costs to detain an individual begs the question of why Congress requires ICE to detain 34,000 individuals each day.
There is no good answer. Despite being more humane, just and inexpensive, only 23,000 immigrants receive alternative surveillance compared to the minimum of 34,000 who are held in detention centers.
President Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 included a large expansion of so-called “alternatives to detention,” or ATD. The bad news is the increased funding provides almost exclusively for ankle-bracelet monitoring, which only expands business opportunities for for-profit prison companies, like GEO. Additionally, this expanded funding does not repeal or reduce the 34,000 detention beds that are required to be filled. Any expansion of ATDs is only helpful and cost-effective if it’s coupled with less detention.
Individuals should be detained only in cases where the government has proved that no other method is feasible. In order to ensure this, Congress must repeal mandatory detention laws and defund appropriations quotas that require 34,000 daily beds and instead invest money into community-based alternatives.
Until Congress acts, ICE will continue to sign contracts with GEO and heartbreaking stories like that of Ramon Mendoza Pascual and his family will continue to be our legacy.
This Op-Ed ran in the Seattle Times. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D- Bellevue, represents the 9th Congressional District.