The US Is Wasting Vast Sums On Mandatory Immigration Detention

Under the Constitution, people are entitled to all sorts of rights, particularly around personal liberties and freedoms. The current state of the immigration system in the United States is clearly violating some of these rights, in spirit if not in actual fact. Case in point is immigration detention; under the law, immigrants can be indefinitely detained while awaiting decisions on their cases, although a recent court case may change that. As my colleague Flavia Dzodan has pointed out, immigration detention is a global, multibillion dollar industry.

The United States spends $5.5 million daily on immigration detention. Expenditures are mounting every year, the result of a growing number of immigrants in detention, and at the same time, detainees are being deprived of due process thanks to a growing backlog of immigration cases that may leave people sitting for weeks, months, even years while they wait for hearings. To say nothing of conditions for detainees with disabilities, many of whom do not understand the proceedings against them and cannot adequately mount defenses in court, some of whom are in the US legally, but get deported anyway.

This is part of the prison industrial complex in the United States. The profits to be made from immigration detention are vast, especially as growing numbers of facilities are being privatised. Proponents claim this makes it cheaper to run detention centres, but this is not actually supported by the numbers, and it’s also ripe for exploitation and embezzlement, as seen when prison officials do things like pocketing budgets earmarked specifically for food. Companies stand to make huge amounts of money from running private immigration detention facilities, and the government washes its hands of responsibility in the matter. It is just doing its job, after all.

It’s hard to talk about immigration detention without looking at the growing tide of anti-immigrant laws in the United States. All 50 states this year considered immigration-related measures. Many of those measures led directly to increasing criminalisation for immigrants in the US, which in turn created a need for more beds in already overstuffed detention centres. Multiple US states effectively put money directly into the hands of prison privatisation corporations, by ensuring a steady flow of ‘customers’ for their caring attentions with this onslaught of legislation. It’s similar to the flood of ‘tough on crime’ laws seen in the 1990s that directly contributed to prison overcrowding, but there’s a key difference.

People put in prison in the United States are at least passed through some sort of semblance of a justice system. It is usually a mockery, it is classist and racist, it all but ensures that certain people accused of certain crimes will go to prison for it, but it is at least a pretense of constitutionality. People in US prisons, on paper, have been allowed an opportunity to go to court, to receive fair trials. The fact that trials are not fair is inescapable, and the fact that the system is in urgent need of reform is undeniable.

Immigrants, though, are detained purely on suspicion. They have not been convicted of any crime. They are being held while the government determines if they committed a crime. This differs from jailing in other cases, when people may be held if they are considered flight risks or threats to the safety of the community, while others are allowed out on bail, with the understanding that they will return to their communities. Mandatory detention laws in the United States require that people accused of immigration violations be detained until trial. This translates into indefinite confinement.

Conditions in immigration detention centres are not pleasant. They are crowded and often unhealthy. The risks of contracting a communicable disease rise dramatically, as do the risks of experiencing mental health problems related to the stress of confinement. Adequate medical services are often not available. Detainees may be cut off from contact with their family members, who may be afraid to visit due to concerns about being caught up in immigration sweeps, even if they have documentation to prove they are in the country legally.

Huge amounts of money are being wasted on immigration detention in the United States. No matter how people feel about immigration, government waste is a pressing issue, particularly right now, when budgets are undergoing severe contraction and we’re struggling to find the funds to provide basic services. The amount spent on indefinite confinement for people awaiting deportation hearings could be applied to much more pressing issues; to making sure that schools can meet the needs of their students, for example. To providing health care to residents of the United States. Even to analysis of immigration policy and recommendations for improving it.

The immigration system in the United States is undeniably broken; this seems to be one thing everyone can agree on. Indefinite detention does absolutely nothing meaningful to address this issue, and it costs us a lot of money, to boot. It certainly does much to pad the pockets of corporations, but little to actually benefit society at large. It’s inhumane, unjust, and possibly unconstitutional, depending on how one wants to interpret some clauses in the bill of rights. Like victims of the prison system in the United States, many immigrants also do not receive ‘fair’ trials when they finally do make it before a judge and have an opportunity to argue their cases. With a substantial court backlog, it’s virtually impossible to give immigration cases the attention they deserve.

This is not the only country that does this, not the only place that keeps immigrants indefinitely in harsh and inhumane conditions while preparing to expulse them. It is not the only nation passing an escalating assortment of anti-immigrant laws, some of which are so baldly racist that it’s astounding they stand up to legal scrutiny for more than thirty seconds. This, our handling of immigration, is absolutely nothing to be proud of, and it’s not in keeping with any national values I can think of.