A detailed and highly critical analysis of the U.S. immigration detention system by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies is calling for a radical restructuring of the way the government handles undocumented immigrants.
Released on May 11, the 44-page report tracks the growth of the detention system over the last 20 years and the rise of private prison companies to help handle the load, while documenting the long delays and lack of funding in the immigration court system. The report makes the case for “alternative to detention” programs that would be as effective, less costly and more just than the current system, which relies on local, state and federal facilities where detainees’ “lives are governed by standards designed for criminal defendants.”
“The U.S. detention system deprives persons of liberty, divides families, inhibits integration, and prevents participation in the broader society,” the report’s authors conclude, adding later that the system is “neither humane nor, in its current form, necessary.”
"Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Detention System” is prefaced by a letter from Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, a member of the committee and the chair of the Center for Migration Studies. “The U.S. detention system represents a far cry from solidarity or communion,” the bishops write. “It divides us from our brothers and sisters. It contributes to the misconception that immigrants are criminals and a threat to our unity, security and well-being.”
In the past, the bishops have called for the termination of detention for undocumented families, an argument they reiterate here. Facilities for women and children have expanded since the influx of families from Central America in 2013-14. But the current report goes a step further, calling for all detention facilities to be used “sparingly, for a brief period and as a last resort.”
The report argues against using detention as a way to deter other migrants from traveling to the United States, citing a U.N. report that “harsh detention policies over a 20-year period have not resulted in a decrease in irregular migration.” It also compares the detention system to the U.S. criminal justice system, in which defendants are routinely released with the expectation that they will show up for court hearings or face penalties.
Such a strategy should also be used for undocumented immigrants, the report argues, especially since many of these individuals have no other criminal record: “Many persons in removal proceedings enjoy strong family, employment, and community ties in the United States, making them unlikely to abscond with proper supervision and support.”
The report’s authors acknowledge that “alternative to detention” programs would have to be expanded to accommodate the undocumented population. But they argue that “community-based, case management services” would be less expensive than holding undocumented immigrants in prison-like settings.
The report also argues that the role of for-profit prisons, which lobby heavily for their own interests, “should be curtailed and rigorously monitored.” Nineteen percent of detainees are held in private facilities. It suggests that Congress should eliminate the national policy of mandatory detention “in all but the most egregious criminal and national security cases” and that immigrants seeking asylum should not be “penalized for legal entry or stay.”
To reduce backlogs, the report recommends that Congress set aside more funds for the immigration court system. Finally, the report notes that while “properly crafted” laws could help reduce the burden on the current system, “detention reform does not require and should not wait for passage of comprehensive reform legislation.”