Immigration detention by the numbers

Department of Homeland SecurityThe American prison system is thriving in our shrinking economy. By 2010 immigration detention is expected to cost taxpayers over $1.7 billion. Some people believe we helped create this situation, relying on immigrant labor to fill low-wage, low-skill jobs. Now it appears that we want to criminalize the people who helped fuel the U.S. economy.

It may come as a surprise that the U.S. lacks effective screening tools to identify serious criminals when making an alien arrest. After an alien is arrested, both criminals and non-criminals are all held in the same county, state and federal facilities. As conditions become more crowded, inmates are moved without regard to where their lawyers and warrants are located. This leads to inefficiencies in managing cases and identifying the criminals. The time aliens languish in the already overburdened system increases.

The number of individuals held in custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the just-ended FY 2009 is now estimated to have reached 369,483 detainees, more than twice what the total was in FY 1999. ICE runs a decentralized network of detention facilities that hold aliens pending proceedings or deportation. Immigration proceedings are civil proceedings and immigration detention is not punishment.

Because ICE lacks facility space for this growing population, they contract with local governments and private businesses such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Since 2004, revenue at CCA, (which has a contract with the Department of Homeland Security) increased from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion. The success of the private prison sector is an externality that fuels the pressure to grow an ever increasing detention population.

The administration recently appointed an expert to try to fix the system. She drafted a report and then left her position after one month. Her report detailed the following. Of the aliens in detention on September 1, 2009, 66 percent were subject to mandatory detention and 51 percent were felons, of which, 11 percent had committed violent crimes. The majority of the population is characterized as low custody, or having a low propensity for violence.

Nevertheless, in its fiscal year 2009 report to Congress, ICE requested an additional $72 million to support a planned increase in staffing and bed space to house mostly non-violent aliens. This increasing use of detention is placing a significant strain on government resources. If we were to jail every illegal immigrant, it would cost $1.6 billion dollars a day and that does not include legal or court costs. This is an absurd result to a problem which could be solved by efficient screening and categorization.

In October 2009, Department of Homeland Security set a deadline for ICE to develop an assessment tool to identify aliens suitable for Alternatives to Detention (ATD). ATD costs substantially less per day than detention: the most expensive form of ATD costs only $14 per day compared to the cost of detention.


  • The government needs to do a better job at managing aliens entering the system.
  • A short term strategy to control costs should include effective screening prior to detaining aliens, implementing less restrictive conditions of control. Given the current daily census of detainees, the cost difference between jail and the alternative is $52 million versus $5 million per day, at an annual savings of $564 million dollars a year.
  • Long term efforts would be more efficiently spent on stopping smugglers on the border. The government should investigate repeated migration patterns, identify the countries where smugglers originate and focus preventive efforts to stop aliens before they enter the detention system. A review of court cases reveals aliens repeatedly re-enter the detention and court system at great government expense.
  • Of the 89% non-violent detainees in the system, select out non-criminals with ties to the community (citizen family members and legal employment) to remain under surveillance with monitoring devices and avoid the expense of custody altogether.

About Dena Wurman

Dena Wurman has a Masters Degree in Public Administration, a Juris Doctorate and worked as a business and financial administrator in the public sector before starting a law practice. She is a member of the American Bar Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. For a free consultation visit, e-mail or follow me on Twitter @denawurman.

1 Response

  1. What happened to the “a government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations.” That is open government. And to go further than that is exactly “close to what is happening to countries today.” as what one commenter said on the video. 

    Open government is transparency, the ability of the people to access all confidential information about governance.

    The traditional media, blogging, Facebook, Twitter are tools to develop open government.

    However, to go much further than that: open government is close to the meaning of absolute freedom. An abuse of the right of the government’s secrecy is bad. So absolute open government can also cause chaos.


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