Opinion | Stop Imprisoning People Who Seek Refuge in the U.S.

One day in the spring of 2019, a young Honduran man in a detention center in Ferriday, La., began to feel strange. He’d recently heard from his lawyers that his request to be released on humanitarian parole while his asylum case was pending had been denied. As he swayed on his feet, his skin breaking out into hives, he suspected that the stress of facing more time in a prison cell had brought on a panic attack.

Then his symptoms intensified. His throat closed up, and he could barely catch his breath. His roommate tried to soothe him, but M., whom I am identifying only by his first initial because of death threats he has received in Honduras, lost consciousness and was taken to the local rural hospital, where he received treatment for anaphylactic shock. Over the next several months, he would go into shock twice more. The doctors never isolated the cause.

M.’s lawyers helped him file for parole yet again. “He needs a full medical evaluation and physical therapy to fully recover from his injuries,” they wrote; his release was “the only humanitarian course of action.” But an immigration officer rejected the request, calling M. a flight risk even though he had no criminal record and a friend willing to sponsor his release, assuming the responsibility for getting him to court.

Right now, more than 25,000 immigrants are imprisoned in U.S. detention facilities, with thousands more waiting in Mexico for the chance to cross — at which point most will be summarily locked up. It’s a policy of deterrence by detention: to make life so unpleasant that immigrants opt to go home on their own accord, or never come at all.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people like M. who have spent months or even years in the grips of America’s detention system while they fight their court cases, baffled as to how they can remain locked up for so long. International law considers detention a measure of last resort, and America’s own policies reserve it for people who are either a danger to public safety or a significant flight risk.

But immigration judges and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers get to decide these cases without having to offer much in the way of specifics; each year, they confine tens of thousands of people without so much as a parking ticket to their names, or any proof that they would vanish into the country if released. Like thousands of others, M. learned that his request for parole had been denied in a perfunctory memo sent to one of his lawyers: “You have not established to ICE’s satisfaction that you are not a flight risk.”

A few weeks after he was taken to the hospital, his lawyers tried yet again for parole. His “continued detention and lack of access to proper medical treatment,” one wrote, “places him at significant risk of death in ICE custody, which is something that I assume all parties want to avoid.” Again, the request was denied, with no justification.

The push to imprison immigrants emerges from the pernicious mythologies that cast these people — particularly those who are poor and not white — as dangerous criminals. And these days, people are being kept longer and longer in detention. In 2015, the average stay was 21 days. In 2020, despite the grave threat of a coronavirus outbreak, that number had leapt to 59 days. Many immigrants spend years in detention centers as they wait for their cases to move forward.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many alternatives to detention we could be using that have proved successful around the world, and even here at home. We can protect human rights and human life, lower the costs for taxpayers and ensure that people show up to their immigration proceedings.

Spain and Belgium, for instance, offer group homes where immigrants receive social work support and have their basic needs met while pursuing immigration status. In Spain, they can stay in these homes for up to six months; if their case takes longer, a social worker helps them find other housing and a job to pay for it. In Sweden, asylum seekers are given their own apartments, per diems and work permits, with the requirement that they regularly check in with the nearby immigration authorities until their case is resolved.

A Salvadoran woman staying in Belgium told me she’d headed there because she knew from friends and family what awaited her in the States. Now she takes free French and vocational classes while her daughter goes to public school. “In the U.S.,” she said, “I know I’d be in detention, and no one would be supporting me.”

If these alternatives to detention models sound like wishful thinking in a country as allergic to social spending as the United States, consider that in 2016, the Obama administration tried an initiative similar to Belgium’s system, the Family Case Management Program, which provided social services and referrals to qualifying families. According to the Niskanen Center, “The program achieved 99 percent compliance for check-ins and 100 percent compliance for court hearings.”

In 2017, the Trump administration shut down the program as part of its broader push to ramp up detention and enforcement efforts. Still, even through the Trump years, the United States employed other alternatives to detention that could be instituted easily and swiftly at scale.

One of these strategies is provisional release from detention, most often on bond or humanitarian parole. In both cases, the people detained are released to live with sponsors — family members or friends, generally — are required to check in regularly with an ICE agent, either by phone or in person, and are sometimes given an ankle bracelet for electronic monitoring.

In an early study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, 99 percent of participants enrolled in ICE’s comprehensive Alternatives to Detention program from 2011 to 2013 showed up at their court dates. Several years later, Mr. Trump falsely claimed that fewer than 1 percent of immigrants appeared on their court date after being released from detention, but government data puts that number closer to 83 percent. As of August, roughly 117,000 people were enrolled in Alternatives to Detention.

Still, a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in detention centers across the country, as immigrants behind bars struggle to find legal counsel or the medical care they need to survive. In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch analyzed the deaths of 15 ICE detainees from 2015 to 2017 and found that inadequate medical care contributed to more than half of the deaths. They would probably still be alive today had they been released into an alternative program.

While ending immigrant detention is first and foremost a matter of human rights, it is also an economic imperative. Since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, the federal government has spent an estimated $333 billion on immigration enforcement. In 2018, it spent almost $3.1 billion on detention alone. While it costs taxpayers roughly $134 a day to keep someone in a detention center, the alternatives, such as case management and electronic monitoring, cost an average of roughly $6 each day.

And yet our government routinely declines to use these alternative measures. According to the government’s own policies, asylum seekers who can prove their identity and demonstrate that they do not pose a flight risk or threat to public safety should be released.

But in certain jurisdictions, judges or ICE agents summarily reject these applications — a trend that skyrocketed in the Trump administration as emboldened ICE officers rejected whole caseloads. In 2018, ICE’s New Orleans field office, for instance, denied more than 98 percent of parole applications.

Admittedly, the current alternatives to detention in the United States are far from perfect with respect to human rights. Many people are released from detention with uncomfortable and stigmatizing ankle bracelets; in rural locations, they must travel hundreds of miles each week, with limited transportation or funds, to meet with their ICE officers or, in rare instances, caseworkers, who are not always supportive or helpful. But these alternatives could be greatly improved and better monitored — at a small fraction of the human and economic cost of maintaining a sprawling network of detention centers.

In spite of being a prime candidate for parole, M. was kept in detention for roughly 18 months before he was deported in May 2020 without warning, after a Covid outbreak in his facility. (He is now fighting his asylum case from Honduras.) Even he was surprised he lasted that long inside. Detention is made to break people.

As standard as it has become for our country to imprison people seeking refuge within our borders, it is worth remembering just how new immigration detention is in the span of human history. The world’s first detention center devoted entirely to immigrants was Ellis Island, “the island that,” as the French novelist Georges Perec wrote, “in every European tongue / had been renamed the isle of tears.” The second of its kind was Angel Island, a sentinel prison in the San Francisco Bay, at the other end of “the land of the free,” where, between 1910 and 1940, immigrants mostly from East Asia were detained.

The United States, then, a country whose founding mythologies are rooted in freedom and protection from tyranny, invented immigration detention — a creation that is tremendously costly to human life, to the human psyche and the national spirit and to taxpayers. And it’s one that, given all these alternatives, we need never have created in the first place.

Lauren Markham (@LaurenMarkham_) is the author of “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an America Life.”

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