Press Releases

Op-Ed: Jailing immigrants is inhumane, costly and unnecessary

Setting detention goals for immigrants is a waste of taxpayer dollars

March 31, 2015

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.

Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) released the following statement after the House of Representatives voted on Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposals:
“With increasing income inequality, decreasing wages, and a shrinking middle class, we need a budget that prioritizes those that aren’t sharing in the recent economic recovery.  The Democratic budget does just that by expanding tax credits for working families, increasing access to quality education, improving our nation’s aging infrastructure, and ending sequestration. 
“Unfortunately, the Republican budget stands in stark contrast by instead giving large tax breaks to the wealthy while failing to address the challenges faced by many hard-working Americans.  Their budget would slash funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) resulting in millions of children and families losing essential support to help put food on the table.  It would turn Medicare into a voucher system, gut Medicaid and make it more difficult to protect Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  It makes devastating cuts to education, research, and energy which will stifle innovation and the economy.  
“These budgets offer two very different visions for the future of our country.  It is critical that we come together to support policy priorities in the Democratic budget that invest in our workers, expand economic and education opportunities, and provide funding to rebuild our infrastructure.”


Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) released the following statement on remittances to Somalia:

“It’s now been over a month since Merchants Bank closed their accounts with Money Transfer Operators (MTOs) leaving Somali Americans in the 9th District and across the country without any avenues to send money to their families back home.  This is an issue of life or death for families in Somalia as they rely on remittances from their families in the United States.  Without a resolution, Somali Americans will be forced to find and utilize unregulated and insecure sources to get money back to their families. We must immediately address this problem.

“A few weeks ago, multiple federal agencies that can address this issue came together to engage in a discussion on how to fix this problem.  I was disappointed that no specific solutions were offered and that we continue to have no resolution.  We need to take a creative approach to resolve this problem in the short-term and continue to explore solutions to resolve this issue once and for all.  This meeting simply made clear that we have a long way to go.

“There will be a meeting between Members of Congress and the National Security Council two weeks from now, and I sincerely hope that we can make progress.  I will continue to do all I can to advocate for a solution and advance policies that ensure Somali Americans can send money back to their families.”

U.S. Reps. Sander Levin (D-MI) and Adam Smith (D-WA) and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have introduced legislation to extend through 2020 the Trade Adjustment Assistance program – which expires at the end of 2015 – and renew a vital 2009-2010 expansion of the program to provide assistance for thousands of service industry workers affected by trade, as well as for workers losing their jobs due to trade with countries with which the United States does not have a free trade agreement, such as China. The bill would also extend the TAA for Firms program, which helps businesses adversely affected by trade regain their competitiveness. A fact sheet on The Trade Adjustment Assistance Act of 2015 is available here.
Trade Adjustment Assistance provides necessary assistance for workers who have lost their job due to trade. The Department of Labor estimates that since 1975 more than two million workers have relied on the TAA program to receive benefits to make ends meet and the training necessary to find new employment. Congress included a short-term TAA extension in the omnibus bill last year, but the statutory authority for the program expires entirely at the end of this fiscal year.  
“The extension of the basic TAA program at the end of the year while welcome did not address several key improvements that are vital to assisting an expanded group of trade impacted workers,” Reps. Levin and Smith, and Sen. Brown said. “For example, service workers and workers who lose their jobs due to trade with non-FTA, non-preference program countries like China are not currently eligible for TAA. Our bill restores benefits to these workers while also providing much needed technical assistance so firms can remain competitive. Our commitment to displaced workers and the value of the TAA program stands on its own merits and should not be held up by other trade debates.”


Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) released the following statement on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding:
“House Republicans are yet again manufacturing a crisis to force their extreme agenda upon the American people. In December, Republicans funded DHS only through February with the intent to hold its funding hostage to jam through their extreme immigration policies.  This dangerous strategy has failed, and once again we’re at the brink of shutting down the agency that protects our national security and the livelihood of the men and women that protect us.  The Senate recognizes the importance of DHS and has come together in a bipartisan way to pass a clean funding bill.  I urge House Republican leadership to do the same.”