R Street commends Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) for introducing legislation—the U.S. Citizenship Act—that would expand alternatives to detention which have proven more cost-effective and humane than the status quo of incarceration.

“The current immigration enforcement system requires significant reforms and the U.S. Citizenship Act adds safeguards that will restrain government spending and help protect individual liberty,” said R Street Resident Senior Fellow Lars Trautman.

Following a series of COVID-19 outbreaks in immigration detention centers, R Street highlighted the harms of unnecessary detention of low-risk, non-criminal immigrants. Not only is detention costly to the taxpayer, but it can have fatal consequences. An expansion of alternatives to detention (ATDs) is necessary to preserve space for immigration offenders with serious public safety concerns and to protect otherwise law-abiding individuals pursuing claims to legal status in federal court.

The Act includes two provisions to this end. The first, Sec. 4304(d), establishes a presumption of release for non-citizens who are victims of a crime or who are pursuing legitimate claims to legal status in the court system. Current law maintains a presumption of detention and as many as 70 percent of non-citizens in detention facilities are incarcerated due to statutorily-mandated detention. R Street has advocated for a presumption of release for asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear screening—the first step in gaining asylum—family units and other vulnerable populations.

The second provision, Sec. 4305, directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to expand ATD programs and resources for community-based supervision. While no ATD is as effective as detention in ensuring individuals appear in court, government analyses indicate more than 90 percent of participants comply with court orders and nearly 100 percent appear for immigration court dates. Given that ATDs are substantially less expensive (an average daily cost of $4.16 per individual compared to a range of $137 and $208 per individual and over $300 per family for detention) and more humane than detention, the minor tradeoff in appearance rates is worth it.

Immigration detention is civil, not criminal, meaning individuals are detained for civil offenses and are not being punished for a crime. Any individual detained in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility who has committed a crime has already served their time in a jail or prison, and the vast majority of individuals in an ICE facility have never committed a crime.

A report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General revealed that facility inspections regularly fail to comply with the law, that ICE fails to “systematically hold facilities accountable,” and that “some deficiencies remain unaddressed for years.” An ICE official referred to inspections as “useless” according to the report. Measures to increase accountability for detention centers are still necessary, but one way to resolve the inherent difficulty of meaningfully monitoring and punishing violators is to reduce the number of individuals subject to detention in the first place.

Read more of R Street’s work on immigration detention.