1. Background
  2. Immigrants & Refugees

Immigrant Detention Is Costly, Harmful, and Unnecessary

March 20, 2019


Participants in FCNL's annual Spring Lobby Weekend will urge Congress to reduce the use of and funding for immigrant detention in favor of alternatives.

Who Is in Detention?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks up asylum seekers and families who are seeking safety in this country, along with longtime community members who yearn to stay with their families but cannot access any visa. Immigrants are detained simply for not having the right papers, not because they are serving time or paying a debt to society. The system is bolstered by laws that mandate criminal prosecutions for unlawful entry and detention, as well as those that support the private prison industry.

Immigrants can be detained for years, whether or not they have a prior conviction.

U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.

U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

Immigrant Detention Has Expanded Dramatically

Each year more than 400,000 people are incarcerated, and the numbers keep rising. In 2016, nearly 35,000 individuals were detained, on average, each day.

That number increased by nearly 40 percent in just two years. As of February 2019, a record 49,000 individuals each day were imprisoned by ICE.

The daily detained population grew from just over 5,000 in 1996 to nearly 50,000 in February 2019.

Harsh, Increasingly Fatal Conditions

More than 200 facilities across the country house adults, juveniles, families, and asylum seekers in local and state jails, federally owned prisons, and privately owned and operated facilities. Most state and local facilities are dual purpose, housing those detained for civil immigrant as well as criminal violations. The system is driven by profit and politics, not public safety. Immigration detention traumatizes vulnerable people, jeopardizes the basic health and safety of those detained, and undermines meaningful access to counsel in isolated, remote facilities.

ICE Fiscal Mismanagement

Despite a track record of overspending, mismanagement and abuse, Congress has increased the Department of Homeland Security's budget for detention and removal operations by nearly $1 billion – a 25 percent growth – over the past two years.

ICE overspends what Congress gives for detention, moves money appropriated for other purposes to further increase detention spending, and regularly uses alarmist rhetoric to appeal for more money. Congress has repeatedly failed to aggressively oversee the spending, accepted inflated detainee population numbers, and refused to sanction violations of congressionally mandated limits on detention or appropriations.

  • In 2018, Congress funded 40,354 detention beds. In the same spending cycle, ICE kept more than 48,000 people in detention each day. ICE moved millions of dollars from hurricane relief and other Department of Homeland Security priorities to pay for this increasing detainee population.

  • The appropriations bill for 2019 includes funding for 45,274 detention beds, a 5,000 bed increase from the previous year. The bill included nothing to prevent ICE from continuing its pattern of overspending and stealing funds from other agencies.

Divest from Detention, Invest in Alternatives

The current detention-based system is not working and community-based alternatives to detention have a proven track record of success.

The Family Case Management Program (FCMP) is one such alternative program. Families are placed in communities and received caseworker support. FCMP cost taxpayers only $36 a day to support a whole family. Nearly all participants complied with court appearances and ICE appointments. With legal and community support, most families enrolled in the program won their asylum cases.

Improving access to legal counsel is one way to help immigrants receive justice. Only 14 percent of detained immigrants acquire legal counsel as compared to 66 percent of those out of detention. No access to counsel or even basic legal orientation contributes to the more than 800,000 case backlog and means justice denied for a clear majority of immigrants deported.

We urge Congress to invest in community-based alternatives for all immigrants and restrict spending on detention.

Action Alert Act to Address the True Crisis at Our Border 

There is a crisis at the U.S. border: a moral crisis of immigrant children separated from their parents as they seek safety. There is a crisis of walls through communities and of refugee families detained in camps on military bases. There is a humanitarian crisis, created by military troops deployed in border communities and an illegal ban on certain asylum seekers.

Event Spring Lobby Weekend 2020 

Saturday March 28 - Tuesday March 31 in Washington, DC

At Spring Lobby Weekend 2020, hundreds of students, recent grads, Quakers, and young adults will come to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on one critical issue—climate change.