By Alex DiBranco
The immigration detention system is both a human rights travesty and a massive money pit. While we're busy enriching private prison contractors like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's pals at Corrections Corporation of America, detainees are separated from their loved ones, can await a hearing for years, and are all too often subjected to medical negligence or sexual abuse. And, please, remember, these are people who are only charged with being in the country without authorization: although the immigration system tends to treat people as guilty until proved innocent, these people have yet to be found to be wrongfully in the country at a court hearing, some are seeking asylum, and there are even wrongfully accused American citizens mixed in there.
With two high-profile deaths on the immigration detention system's record, President Barack Obama promised to implement some real changes to stop inhumane treatment. Instead, the Obama administration kept busy trying (and failing) to defend the government against culpability for detainee deaths.
The most heartening sign we've seen recently that maybe, just maybe, we can expect to see some of that promised change in the detention system came with the announcement that 17,000 detainees without serious criminal records would be released and no further removal action taken against them. Many of these people have strong cases for being legalized through a spousal or crime victims visa, so it makes humanitarian and economic sense to set them free. However, free-and-clear release isn't an option for every single detainee in the system, which means that detention reform remains just as pressing as ever.
A new report from the Detention Watch Network, Community-Based Alternatives to Immigration Detention, has outlined for Immigration and Custom Enforcement's (ICE) benefit certain reforms that would work better for everybody (except the private prison contractors losing an easy source of cash). This report comes as a part of the organization's "Dignity, Not Detention," campaign, which has a day of action coming up on October 6 where you can get involved.
ATD programs are not only less expensive and more humane, they've proven highly effective in having participants show up to court dates and be compliant in leaving the country if they cannot make their case, while ensuring that those charged with offenses still have access to medical and legal services, and aren't unnecessarily deprived of the ability to work and be with their families. After all, it's a bittersweet pill to be found okay to stay in the U.S. if you've lost your job and family has entered deep into debt during the months or years you were forced to spend in a tiny cell.
According to the National Immigration Forum, implementing ATD could decrease the cost of immigration detention by half. And since the current cost is $1.77 billion coming straight out of your pocket that could be put to better use, that's serious savings.
Of course, having a humane system is priceless.
Alex DiBranco is a Change.org Editor who has worked for the Nation, Political Research Associates, and the Center for American Progress. She is now based in New York City.