About a month ago, I read an NPR piece by Ted Robbins titled, "Little-known Immigration Mandate Keeps Detention Beds Full." It brought to my attention the fact that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had interpreted language in H.R. 2217 to mean it was required to maintain, on average, a daily detention population of 34,000 people. The provision in H.R. 2217 reads as follows: “Funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2014.” If there is another way to interpret this language other than to mean ICE must maintain a minimum of 34,000 detainees daily, we are all ears, Congress.
In short, there is no answer explaining why Congress placed the level at 34,000. It is seemingly arbitrary, and does not reflect the actual processes that go into putting an immigrant into detention or the actual need as determined by ICE. Immigration detention exists in large part to ensure that immigrants placed in removal proceedings (deportation) do not ignore court appearances and skip town, so to speak.
But, there is a method to the madness of immigration detention. For example, an individual is assessed according to his or her immigration history, criminal background, family and community ties, etc., before the individual is placed under ICE custody (at least, ideally). But, the randomness of the detention mandate is clear sign to me that is has more to do with the business of detention rather than the actual reasons why ICE would detain an immigrant. The good news is that there is a growing rumble demanding Congress to eliminate this immigrant detention mandate.
In June 2013, Representative-(D) Ted Deutch from Florida introduced an amendment that would strike the provision eliminating the mandate language. Unfortunately, it did not pass. A host of immigrant organizations like Human Rights First, the National Immigrant Justice Center, American Immigration Council, and Detention Watch Network have all addressed in one way or another how the detention mandate negatively affects the immigrant population in the country on a daily basis. When put into an historical and social context, the detention mandate is very fitting, sadly, in this culture of xenophobia, and view of immigrants as “illegals” or simply criminals.
It’s important for me to stress that even without the 34,000-detention bed mandate ICE will continue to detain immigrants. The bigger point is that the mandate restricts ICE’s discretion to place many immigrants into alternatives to detention, which are less costly and more effective.
Hopefully, with the passing of the torch to the newly confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, there will be a tougher stance against the bed mandate among other issues important to human rights advocates. We shall see.