Friday, November 20, 2009

There's a Better Way: Alternatives to Detention

Stories from Detention - Week 6

Creating alternatives to detention would be a bold step in fixing this country's broken immigration system.  Before we get into alternatives, let's take a brief look back to see what we've learned so far.

We've learned that immigration is a human rights issue.  Protecting the human rights of all immigrants, including those held in detention centers, is critical in order to restore the credibility of the U.S. immigration system.

We've learned that lacking the proper documentation is a civil offense, not a criminal offense.  Even so, undocumented immigrants are being treated as if they were criminals - they are detained in detention centers across the country and deported at times without ever appearing before a judge.  These immigrants deserve better.

We've learned that the conditions in detention facilities are substandard and that members of vulnerable populations are not sufficiently protected.  While these conditions need to be improved, ultimately the number of people held in immigration detention centers must be reduced.

This final post will discuss humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention.

Before we dive into the details, let's watch a video from Human Rights First about the need for alternatives to detention for asylum seekers.  Then we'll take a look at what it will take to create a nation-wide system of alternatives that works for everyone.

In order to move toward a more humane approach to immigration enforcement, the U.S. government should develop alternatives to detention in a systematic way.  Currently, some alternatives exist here and there, but much more could be done to create humane alternatives on a national scale.  A systematic approach to reform will ensure that all immigrants are treated equally.

What would humane alternatives to detention look like?

The first step in creating nation-wide alternatives to detention is establishing a standardized assessment.  When each individual detainee is apprehended, ICE would conduct an assessment that would examine the detainee's risks and needs.  Questions on risks would establish whether the detainee could be considered a flight risk or a threat to public safety.  Questions on needs would determine whether the detainee belongs to a vulnerable population, whether they have a claim to citizenship or legal status, whether they need medical care, and so on.

By conducting this assessment, ICE would have a much better sense of who exactly is in its custody.  The agency would then be well-positioned to consider whether detention is appropriate for each individual.

The next step would be to determine whether it makes sense to detain each individual.  We're not talking about an either-or proposition here, as if either a person is detained or released.  Instead, we're talking about creating a continuum of different alternative-to-detention options.

ICE would use its risk and needs assessment to determine which option is most suitable for each detainee.  That way, ICE would treat each detainee individually instead of using the current one-size-fits-all approach in which detention is the default.

In this continuum, detention would be a last resort.  

Let's start by looking at the least restrictive end of the continuum.  At the far end, immigrant detainees who are non-criminal and do not pose a risk to society could be released on parole.  They would be expected to appear to their court dates on their own.  Others could be released into community-based or faith-based programs, where they would receive support as their cases proceed.  Others could be enrolled in alternative-to-detention programs that would include regular check-ins with an officer or telephonic reporting.  These would be the non-custodial alternatives to detention.

The more restrictive options in the continuum would be alternative forms of detention (as opposed to alternatives to detention).  The most common of these forms is electronic monitoring, through ankle bracelets.  Detainees in these programs could also be expected to check in regularly or adhere to a curfew.  Then, moving up the scale, immigrant detainees could be held in residential facilities.  Finally, those who are deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety could be held in less restrictive detention facilities or traditional detention facilities as appropriate.

Essentially, detention would no longer be the first option.  It would be the last.  This continuum of alternatives would ensure that detention - an extreme measure - would only be used when it is absolutely necessary.

In political parlance, such a continuum would create a presumption against detention.  The burden would be on the U.S. government to prove why immigrants should be detained, instead of on those in its custody to prove why they should not be detained.

Is this continuum of alternatives to detention possible?

It is not only possible, but necessary.  The current immigration detention system is inefficient, costly, and prone to human rights abuses.  Creating alternatives to detention would improve this system.

Pilot programs for alternatives to detention have demonstrated high levels of compliance, in that almost all participants still showed up for their court dates and removal orders.  If people feel that they're receiving due process, if they respect the system and feel that they've been heard, then they're more likely to respect the final decision on removal.

In addition, creating a nation-wide system of alternatives to detention would save money.  Alternatives cost as little as $12 per person per day, while traditional detention costs, on average, $95 per person per day.  Finally, alternatives would make the system fair by keeping people out of detention who don't belong there.

The ultimate goal is to safely and humanely reduce the number of immigrants in detention.  Creating a continuum of alternatives to detention would be a workable solution that would fix the broken immigration enforcement system and uphold this country's commitment to justice.

So call or write your Representatives and Senators and tell them that the time for immigration reform is now.  Encourage them to include humane detention and due process reforms in comprehensive immigration reform.  Contact the Department of Homeland Security and tell them that the government should use its discretion to create alternatives to detention.  Speak up in church, at school, or at home and tell your community about how to support workable solutions to this broken immigration detention system that disrupts the lives of so many each day.

Want to learn more, or share what you've learned with others?  Check out these resources on detention and alternatives to detention.

The Detention Watch Network is an excellent resource for information on detention and due process.  Click here for their alternatives to detention fact sheet.  Click here for the Rights Working Group fact sheet on detention and due process.

"Jailed Without Justice" is an Amnesty International report on the immigration detention system.  "Seeking Protection, Finding Prison" is a Human Rights First report on asylum seekers in detention.

Wondering whether there's a detention center near you?  Click here to see a map of detention facilities around the country.  Want to get some friends together and visit detainees?  Read this detention visitation manual to learn how to connect your community with immigrant detainees.

To read more stories on detention, visit this website from the Detention Watch Network.

To be neutral in a situation of injustice is to have chosen sides already.

~Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Other posts in this series:

Stories from Detention: Introduction

Rights and Dignity Denied: One Woman's Story

No Human Being is Illegal: Civil Offenses

Searching for Justice: Mandatory Detention

Inside the Walls: Detention Conditions

In Need of Protection: Vulnerable Populations

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