As of March 21, 2020, ICE holds 38,058 immigrants in detention centers across the country. Today, those immigrants are at substantial risk of contracting COVID-19, or the coronavirus.
To prevent a mass outbreak at detention centers, ICE needs to release half of those people as soon as possible.
We get how this proposal sounds. Detained individuals are generally considered dangerous. The word “detainee” conjures thoughts of prison bars and orange jumpsuits. Yet most detainees don’t fit this picture at all.
In fact, more than 50% of detainees on an average day have no criminal history. That makes at least half of the detainees excellent candidates for alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring systems or through requiring check-ins with officers. These alternatives, which ICE already uses for thousands of immigrants, can provide public safety as well as prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Releasing non-violent and low-risk detainees will be a public health boon by helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread. Alternatives to detention are cheaper for ICE to run, and removing half of the population from detention centers provides opportunities for social distancing between the remaining detainees and staff for detention centers that are impossible at current detention levels.
Detainees are overwhelmingly low-risk immigrants without criminal histories
Tracking thousands of individuals moving through ICE facilities and immigration court proceedings is a challenging task. Data must be collected and prepared before it is available to public groups. The most widely cited tracking data for immigration detention and court proceedings is Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration. It has data available through April 2019 on the number of detained immigrants and their criminal conviction history. Many or even most of the immigrants detained have no criminal history. TRAC’s most recent report on ICE detention numbers shows that the growing number of detainees is “fueled by immigrants with no criminal conviction.”
The divergence shown in the TRAC data that starts just before 2018 likely represents the result of stricter immigration rules by President Trump’s administration. A long list of academic research shows that immigrants are actually much less likely to engage in crime than natives, so stepping up enforcement is probably catching more non-criminals.
During the current pandemic, ICE has an opportunity to establish alternative policies that can promote better health standards in detention centers for those who are not released while also cutting the fiscal costs of detention programs.
Alternatives to detention are much cheaper
Alternatives to detention won’t be a panacea for ICE detention centers, but they will be a way to better serve the detainees themselves and lower the costs of immigration enforcement. Detention is the right policy for the minority of immigrants who are public safety threats, even as it is poorly suited for other immigrants, especially families.
Our call for ICE to release many of those it currently detains is purely a call for ICE to bring its detention programs in line with evidence on the actual risks that its detainees pose, and to weigh those risks against the current public health crisis. Prompt action will allow the few detainees who are public safety risks to be detained without spreading COVID-19 to other detainees or detention center staff, which could threaten to overwhelm the capacity of hospitals to care for them.
Although the costs are only a minor element of the current conversation about how to respond to COVID-19, the divergence is staggering. Current detention practices cost around $137 per adult each day. Many alternatives to detention programs cost as little as $4 a day, and others approximately $36 a day. For example, ICE estimated in 2017 that the Intense Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) costs about $4.20 a day per participant. This involves curfews, electronic monitoring, and community-level programming to monitor those released from detention and ensure compliance with rules and immigration court decisions. In 2018, there were 101,568 participants in the ISAP program.
Around 61% of the participants in ISAP were women and 56% were a part of a family. In addition, 90% of ISAP’s enrollees had no criminal record. Between 95 and 99% ultimately appeared at their court hearings. Given the low criminality rate and the number of women who are statistically less likely to commit crimes, there is a selection process here that should be considered as ICE moves towards including more people in the program.
ISAP shows the potential for alternatives to ensure compliance with immigration law at a fraction of the cost, which is only a part of the story as COVID-19 spreads. Alternatives to detention will lower not only the fiscal costs of detention programs but also reduce the health risks to staff and detainees as well.
Lowering detention numbers allows social distancing for those still detained
ICE holds about 37,000 people in detention centers every day, largely in conditions that require close quarters. This is the point that the Obama administration’s acting director for ICE, John Sandweg, made in a recent Atlantic opinion piece.
Sandweg is not optimistic about the situation in detention centers, writing “I know that preventing the virus from being introduced into these facilities is impossible.” Though he pointed out that ICE’s recent shift towards targeting only criminals and dangerous individuals will help by slowing the number of new people introduced into detention centers, it is only the first step.
There is an urgent need for quick responses by ICE to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On March 24, ICE announced the first case of COVID-19 in a detention center. This led to protests and even riots by current detainees who fear for their safety. At the Pearsall detention center in Texas, 60 detainees were pepper-sprayed because they refused to go to their beds.
If ICE turns toward alternatives with vigor, the low-risk individuals released from detention centers will mean more room for the detainees and center staff to practice social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 when it does enter detention centers. Those who do become sick will receive better care as healthcare providers will have fewer cases to split their time between.
Release half of the current ICE detainees before the end of next week
There is a lot that remains unknown about COVID-19’s reach, but the number of cases appears to be doubling each week. It could be that they are doubling even faster, as the number of confirmed cases doubled in just two days from March 17 to March 19. From March 19 to March 26, cases rose from 11,719 to 80,735. The US became the country with the most cases on March 26.
That urgency means that ICE needs to release half of its current detainees before the end of next week. In considering who to release into alternative programs, ICE should consider the criminal history of each detainee as well as the health benefits of reduced crowding at its facilities.
Policy changes are needed on multiple fronts during this pandemic to slow its spread. ICE should lead the way by employing alternative policies that will protect the staff of detention centers and the detainees. There are proven alternatives to detention that should be dramatically scaled up. They are not only more humane, but cheaper. It will take time to ramp these policies up, but there is no excuse for not taking action.
Coauthored with CGO Student Research Fellow Keanu Hansen.