Great bit of reporting by my HuffPost colleague Elise Foley:
On a single day this past fall, the United States government held 13,185 people in immigration detention who had not been convicted of a crime, some of whom will not be charged with one, according to information The Huffington Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Instead, at a cost of roughly 2 million taxpayer dollars per day, the men and women were detained while immigration authorities sorted out their fates.
This case stands in stark contrast to the stated goal of immigration policy under the administration of President Barack Obama: to detain and deport unauthorized immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes.
“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of convicted criminal aliens, fugitives, recent illegal border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nicole Navas said in a statement. “ICE’s enforcement approach is enhancing public safety in communities around the country.”
The FOIA request for information on all immigrants in detention on Oct. 3, 2011, turned up a list of nearly 32,300. Forty percent of those held by ICE had not been convicted of a crime, nor were they awaiting criminal trial. Despite what the term “illegal immigration” implies, simply being in the country without status is a civil, not a criminal, offense.
Rapists and murderers, frequently cited as the main unauthorized immigrants ICE is trying to remove, made up a far smaller percentage of those held that day than the innocent, traffic violators or low-level drug offenders, according to ICE’s crime breakdown.
“The fact is, we’re not deporting huge numbers of rapists and murderers,” said Emily Tucker, director of policy and advocacy for the Detention Watch Network, which pushes for limiting detention and deportation. “They would like us to think that, but that isn’t what is going on.”
Locking people up is big business. The Corrections Corporation of America, which gives heavily to both parties, is explicit about the connection between immigrant detention policy and the private prison company’s bottom line. “[T]he demand for our correctional and detention facilities and services … could be adversely affected by changes in existing criminal or immigration laws, crime rates in jurisdictions in which we operate, the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, and the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws or the loosening of immigration laws,” the company wrote in an analysis for investors filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”
I’ve poked fun at the HuffPost commenters for faulting private prisons for nearly everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system. But the connection between private prisons, detention policy, and the odious immigration laws in states like Arizona is pretty hard to deny. I’ve never really been comfortable with private prisons. Whether they’re more efficient or cost effective is less important to me than the fact that I don’t like having a government-created industry whose bottom line is dependent on keeping as many people behind bars as possible. (I have similar feelings about defense contractors, though there are some important differences.) They also tend to be less transparent, and in many cases aren’t covered by open records laws.
Last July’s criminal justice issue of Reason also had a good feature by Jesse James deConto explaining the odd legal space occupied by immigration detention centers.