A Conservative Approach to Immigration Detention Reform


Recent reports of inadequate medical care provided at immigration detention centers, as well as mismanagement of COVID-19 outbreaks, have prompted calls for an investigation into the conditions of these facilities. Past investigations have generally resulted in negative assessments of immigration facility conditions.

A Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) investigation of ICE and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) detention facilities revealed a lack of capacity to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, which immigration advocates have compared to previous mishandlings of contagious outbreaks in immigration detention centers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office noted that ICE has “systematically provided inadequate medical and mental health care and oversight to immigration detainees in facilities throughout the U.S.”


Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained 510,854 individuals in FY2019 and averaged a daily population of 50,165 people. Both numbers represent large increases from the prior two years in response to an increase in apprehensions at the southern border as well as the administration’s preference for detaining immigrants instead of releasing them on supervision. ICE detention is a form of civil confinement in which immigrants go through an administrative removal process, which is different than receiving a punishment for committing a crime.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) contains four provisions which largely govern the immigration detention scheme. These provisions dictate which classes of aliens are subject to mandatory detention and which classes are entitled to various alternatives to detention.

Two entities inspect ICE facilities for compliance with confinement standards: ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) and a private company, the Nakamoto Group, which is an ICE contractor. Facilities are subject to annual inspections from The Nakamoto Group and a more thorough inspection from ODO every three years. Both inspectors can impose financial penalties or contract cancelations for inspection failures.


Detention is necessary to deter illegal immigration and to allow for the expeditious removal of illegal immigrants who represent serious public safety or national security threats. A coherent conservative approach to immigration detention should center on public safety, fiscal responsibility, and protecting constitutional liberties and human dignity.

While there is some deterrent benefit to detention, the evidence for detention as a deterrent to illegal immigration is relatively weak, and detention incurs significant taxpayer costs. Notably, most immigrant detainees have never been convicted of a crime, and most of those who have were convicted of minor crimes for which they have already served sentences in jail or prison.

Given these realities and the documented instances of neglect and abuse in facilities, conservative reforms to immigration detention should center on reserving detention for pressing public safety threats, expanding alternatives to detention and increasing oversight of ICE and CBP facilities.


• Expand alternatives to detention (ATDs) Š

• Reform INA to narrow the scope of detention Š

• Increase facility oversight and accountability Š

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