Center for American Progress

Alternatives to Detention and the For-Profit Immigration System

Alternatives to Detention and the For-Profit Immigration System

The Department of Homeland Security’s supervision and monitoring programs are often an extension of a punitive immigration system that puts corporate profits over migrants’ lives.

A Honduran woman wears an ankle monitor as she attends a meeting for immigrants at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church in New York City, August 2014. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
A Honduran woman wears an ankle monitor as she attends a meeting for immigrants at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church in New York City, August 2014. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

When Marco Tulio Hernandez left New Orleans to visit his cousin in Mississippi on March 13, he didn’t expect to end up in handcuffs. As an immigrant enrolled in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP)—an alternative to detention program for people in immigration proceedings—he wasn’t allowed to leave Louisiana without permission. But he’d met with his ISAP officer a few days prior to his trip, and according to Hernandez, she gave him permission to buy the bus ticket and go to Mississippi.

Hernandez, an asylum seeker from Honduras, says that in his four years in and out of ISAP, he’s complied with all the program’s rules. These include weekly office check-ins, unannounced home visits, and geographical limits enforced by his GPS-enabled ankle monitor. He says that the frequency of the check-ins made it difficult for him to maintain a steady job, but because he was afraid of being deported, he never missed one.

But shortly after he returned from Mississippi, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him, claiming that he didn’t have authorization to leave the state. Rather than keeping Hernandez out of physical detention, ISAP led him directly into it.

The New Orleans ISAP office declined to discuss Hernandez’s case when asked for comment.

ISAP as an alternative to detention

ISAP is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) push for expanded use of alternatives to detention. Initially, the DHS envisioned alternatives to detention as “community-based supervision strategies” designed to mimic the effects of immigration detention—in particular, to ensure that people show up for court appointments—without locking people up. In theory, alternatives to detention allow ICE to adjust the level of immigrants’ supervision based on their “assessed risk.”

In 2009, the DHS used several supervision programs, all of which included some form of location tracking and phone or in-person check-ins. With ankle monitors, employment verification, and curfew checks, ISAP was considered “the most restrictive.” After the DHS expanded the program in 2009 and renewed it in 2014, ISAP now dominates alternatives to detention to such an extent that it’s become synonymous with the phrase. The DHS released a report in 2015 titled “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Alternatives to Detention,” and the entire document is about ISAP—no other program is even mentioned.

ISAP is not a community-based alternative, however. It’s run by BI Incorporated, which is owned by Geo Group—a for-profit company that owns a sprawling network of prisons and detention centers, including Pine Prairie Correctional Center, where Hernandez is currently detained. Geo Group’s acquisition of BI Incorporated in 2011 has allowed it to own even more of the custody market, so it can now profit off migrants like Hernandez even when they’re not detained.

When implemented well, alternatives to detention have merit: For example, they’re more cost-effective than detention. The immigration detention system currently costs taxpayers more than $2 billion per year. Daily detention costs range from $126 to $182 per person, while alternatives are significantly cheaper, ranging from $0.70 to $17 per day.

More importantly, alternatives to detention—if they act as true alternatives—can keep families together and spare immigrants the psychological costs of detention. Immigrants in detention frequently report poor medical care, spoiled food, and physical or sexual abuse—particularly in privately run detention centers, which often lack the oversight of government-owned facilities.

Hernandez says he encountered these abuses firsthand. When ICE officers arrested him, they asked him to sign some papers. The papers were in English, so he refused to sign them before speaking with a lawyer. Hernandez says that when he refused to sign, the officers forced him to the ground and beat him. He says one officer stomped on his face, another struck him in the spine, and one of the officers kept telling him to sign the papers “for your own good.” So he did.

At the time of publication, the ICE field office in New Orleans did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Corporate profits and the expansion of immigration detention

ICE first detained Hernandez shortly after he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in March 2012. He sought asylum in the United States after witnessing a massacre of agricultural workers in his hometown in Honduras. With no criminal background and an asylum case pending, he wasn’t a “danger to national security,” so ICE eventually released him from detention and enrolled him in ISAP, setting him on a four-year path that led right back to detention.

Many asylum seekers from Latin America—including Hernandez—are fleeing extreme violence and are in danger of facing more violence if they return home. They come to the United States seeking a better, safer life. But instead of receiving shelter, medical care, and the ability to make their case for asylum, they are tracked, detained, and torn from their families, bouncing between detention and supervision programs that are increasingly controlled by a few large corporations.

Hernandez’s experience illustrates the findings of a 2012 report on alternatives to detention from Rutgers School of Law and the American Friends Service Committee. The report documents ICE’s poor consistency; lack of transparency; and its “random exercise of discretion” in programs such as ISAP, which have “created the potential for abuse and the arbitrary placement of individuals” in these programs.

“A lot of the people who are on ISAP are people who would otherwise not be in detention,” says Jeremy Jong, an immigration attorney who represents Hernandez. “This is just an expanded version of detention.”

The growth of alternatives to detention has not resulted in—nor even accompanied—a decline in detention. Rather, while funds for alternatives to detention have skyrocketed, so have funds for detention. ICE’s budget for alternatives to detention grew from $28 million in 2006 to more than $114 million in 2016. Over the same period, ICE’s detention budget more than doubled, increasing from $1 billion in 2006 to $2.3 billion in 2016. Under President Donald Trump, this trend will likely continue. His proposed budget calls for an additional $1.5 billion for the DHS to expand “detention, transportation, and removal” of unauthorized immigrants. But there has been no corresponding influx of immigrants to justify this beefed-up enforcement. Rather, over the past decade, the unauthorized immigrant population has been shrinking—and so have apprehensions at the border.

It’s not surprising that alternatives to detention have not decreased detention numbers. Most of ICE’s funding for alternatives to detention goes to Geo Group, which profits from the expansion of both alternatives to detention and detention itself. Its incentives are misaligned—if ISAP were a true alternative to detention, two of Geo Group’s main sources of revenue would be in direct competition with one another.

When asked if its financial incentives did not allow for ISAP to act as a true alternative to detention, Geo Group replied that they have never “advocated for or against any specific immigration policy” and that their focus “has been and remains on providing high quality services.”

BI Incorporated, on the other hand, appeared to distance themselves from their parent company, saying ISAP has been a “successful Alternative to Detention since 2004, prior to The Geo Group acquiring BI Incorporated.” They also emphasized that they partner with “community and non-governmental organizations throughout the U.S.”

Still, many on-the-ground activists tell a different story. Jong says that ISAP and detention go hand in hand. “Everybody knows somebody who was just living their life on ISAP and then got picked up, for something as little as ‘[the ankle monitor] ran out of batteries,’ or ‘the thing stopped working.’”

Hernandez echoed Jong’s sentiment over the phone. When asked if he’d met anyone else in detention who’d been enrolled in ISAP, he replied, “There’s two people here in the room with me now.”

Alternatives to detention should prevent immigrants like Marco Tulio Hernandez from going through the physical and emotional tolls of incarceration. But the current implementation of alternatives—dominated by ISAP—is just another part of an ever-expanding punitive immigration system that puts corporate profits over migrants’ lives.

Jason Fernandes is an assistant editor at the Center for American Progress. The author would like to thank Marco Tulio Hernandez, Jeremy Jong, and Rafael Medina for their time and energy, as well as Lauren Vicary, Carl Chancellor, and the Immigration Policy team at the Center for their feedback.

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Jason Fernandes

Communications and Advocacy Associate