WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than a million immigrants arrive at U.S. borders every year. While some are just seeking a future with greater opportunity, many are escaping violent or threatening situations in their home countries. For refugees and asylum-seekers, the U.S. is the last resort in an attempt to acquire safety. However, with immigration laws tightening even further since the start of President Trump’s administration, immigrants are facing conditions in U.S. detention centers that are just as damaging as the violence-prone countries many are fleeing. The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act proposes some changes to how the U.S. deals with immigrants.
The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) set goals to reform immigration procedures, including ending the detention of children and finding alternatives to detention when possible by 2019. However, with that deadline quickly slipping by, the United States is far from meeting the U.N.’s standards.
What is Detention?
Immigration detention is the state immigrants live in when they arrive in the U.S. while waiting for a judge to examine their case and determine whether or not they have adequate reason to seek asylum in the U.S. Currently, detention centers are housed in privately-owned prisons, which means that the first view of the U.S. granted to immigrants is from behind bars. The detention environment resembles a prison and frequently separates children from their family members. The lack of health care poses a serious threat to the mental and physical well-being of the individuals awaiting decisions on their immigration status.
The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act Proposal
Several U.S. Congress members have pointed out that this is not an appropriate way to welcome those in need into the United States. Federal immigration courts are so backed-up that average stays in detention centers in 2017 exceeded a month, while immigrants with more complex cases have stayed in facilities for years at a time. In response, U.S. Congress members, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) have sponsored a bill called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act which would ensure transparent and responsible conduct around immigrants awaiting a court decision.
One change the bill would implement is a shift from detention to alternative housing arrangements for immigrants awaiting court decisions. Community-based supervision programs, which the United States has used minimally since 2009 but with visible success, allow immigrants to live independently with heavy monitoring by the U.S. government. Rates of immigrants absconding from programs of this nature have been remarkably low, and the cost differential in comparison to detainment is shocking. While adult immigration detention costs $161 per day and family detention costs $266 per person, housing an immigrant in a community-based supervision program costs the government less than $17 and as little as 17 cents. If the U.S. moves towards community-based supervision programs as alternatives to detainment, it not only better aligns with U.S. values and global goals but is also cost-effective.
The Rights of Immigrants
The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would also like to address transparency in how the U.S. runs its detention centers or alternatives. The bill calls for regular inspections at detention facilities to ensure that the facility workers are respecting all rights of immigrants. In addition, it intends to switch from housing immigrants in contracted private prisons to housing immigrants in government-owned buildings. This would eliminate the profit-driven motive to detain.
If Congress pushes the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act in 2019, it could help the UNHCR reach its goal and improve situations for the millions whose lives are in transition at U.S. borders. Those who are in support of the bill or against it should contact their local representatives to make the voice of the American people heard on this influential matter.
– Olivia Heale