U.S. Rep Ted Deutch wants the government to stop paying more than $5 million a day to imprison unauthorized immigrants, many of whom he says pose no danger to the public.
Deutch, D-Boca-Raton, said the system, which mandates that 34,000 undocumented immigrants be held in detention every day, amounts to a “$2 billion per year taxpayer giveaway,” much of which goes to two private prison companies. One is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) based in Tennessee. The other is GEO Group, whose headquarters is in Boca Raton.
“No they aren’t in my district, they’re in the next one over,” he said, referring to GEO and to the district of U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, which includes part of Boca Raton. “But yes, they’re nearby.”
Frankel has signed on to the effort, along with more than 60 other Democratic members of Congress. She said the system “is unfair and wastes resources.”
Members of Congress don’t generally try to defund federal government programs that benefit firms in their states and especially not in their districts. But Deutch said the policy, mandated by Congress, costs too much and needlessly tears apart the families of undocumented immigrants. He is asking that the mandate end and that only persons who need to be detained for security reasons or who have a high probability of flight be placed in detention.
But he is having trouble convincing Republicans, who want the government to take a ahard line on immigration enforcement. Critics say CCA,GEO and a third private prison company, Management and Training Corp. of Utah, have spent $45 million over the past decade to hire lobbyists and make campaign contributions, in part to keep the mandate in place.
Pablo Paez, spokesman for GEO Group, declined to comment on Deutch’s stance, but he took issue with those accusations.
“Our company does not lobby or take a position on immigration-related policies,” Paez said. “Information on all of our facilities worldwide is available on our public website.”
CCA spokesman Steve Owen also denied that his company lobbies for or advocates “policies or laws that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s detention or incarceration.” He said the company prohibits lobbyists from working to pass or oppose immigration legislation.
He also denied that the “bed mandate” requires the government to house detainees specifically with CCA because all the firm’s contracts with ICE can be terminated for any reason with short notice.
The “bed mandate” was added to Homeland Security Department budget in 2009 at the behest of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., although its defenders today are mostly Republicans. The statute orders the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to fund 34,000 immigration detention beds per night nationwide, for immigrants who entered the country illegally. Members of Congress who back the policy say the mandate ensures that U.S. immigration laws are enforced.
In February U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to then ICE Director John Morton, telling him ICE was “in clear violation of statute” after the detainee population fell to 30,773 when 2,200 people were released to save money.
GOP Rep. John Carter, also of Texas, chimed in.
“While our current fiscal crisis dictates thoughtful decisions to put limited dollars against priorities, it is not a political opportunity to ignore the law,” he said. “Immigration enforcement matters to our national security, our public safety, and the integrity of our legal immigration system.”
Bloomberg News, using a Freedom of Information Request, learned that as of mid-April, the number of ICE detainees was back up to 33,811 per day. Some of them were in local jails, which also receive federal payment per detainee, and some in immigration detention centers, both public and private.
In August, the National Immigration Forum issued a report saying that 50 percent of undocumented people in detention were only guilty of immigration infractions, which are considered civil violations. Another 10 percent were guilty of only traffic violations.
That report also said that CCA, which reported revenues of $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2012, manages 15 facilities for ICE, holding, 5,800 beds, and GEO, which reported $1.5 billion in revenues, runs seven centers holding 7,138 beds.
“And each detainee costs taxpayers $164 per day,” Deutch told The Palm Beach Post. “We’re talking about people detained just to make sure they go to court. There are alternative ways to keep track of these people — using ankle bracelets to do monitoring, curfews, home visitations.” Deutch said those methods cost 70 cents to $17 per day, “not $164.”
Deutch said ICE officials use risk assessment to decide who might flee. He cited a study by Julie Myers Wood, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE under President George W. Bush, stating that individuals in alternatives to detention programs show up for their Immigration Court dates 96 percent of the time.
“But members of Congress are telling them not to use those risk assessment tools,” Deutch said. “Meanwhile the money they are spending on detention could be used to fund other ICE activities, like fighting drug smuggling, human trafficking and child pornography.”
At an April hearing, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department includes ICE, said reducing the required number of detainees would let the agency free low-risk offenders who could be on supervised release. At that point she was asking for a reduction to 31,800 beds from 34,000 but even that was rejected by Congress.
“We ought to be detaining according to our priorities, according to public safety threats, level of offense and the like,” she said, “not an arbitrary bed number.”
In June Deutch introduced a bill to remove the mandate from the 2014 budget. It was defeated by Republicans on a party-line vote, 232-190. Last month he coauthored a letter with Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., to President Barack Obama, asking that the mandate be eliminated in the 2015 budget.
“An arbitrary number of detention beds needed by ICE leads to ineffective immigration enforcement, runs contrary to American values of due process, and is a wasteful use of taxpayer dollars,” the letter said.
“We are unaware of any other law enforcement agency with a statutory requirement to detain a minimum number of individuals,” the letter continued. “Mandating government spending on an arbitrary, predetermined number of detention beds is contrary to the best practices in law enforcement.”
Staff researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this report.
At issue: U.S. policy mandates that 34,000 undocumented immigrants be held in detention every day. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch says that mandate is unnecessary and costly since most are not criminals and are at low risk for flight.