Support immigration legislation that reduces use of detention

The time is ripe for a radical rethinking of how we enforce our immigration laws.

People in Tacoma, home to one of the largest immigration detention centers in the nation, have a unique interest seeing that change happen. Whether as a piece of a comprehensive immigration law or through stand-alone legislation, Congress should move on measures that would reduce the use of detention and create real reform in the treatment of the individuals who are taken into federal custody.

The U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill offered glimmers of hope as it addressed the conditions and possible alternatives to detention, action that is badly needed and should be addressed by the House.

Legislation should support alternatives to detention when at all possible. Many people needlessly sit in detention centers, in prison-like conditions, with nothing to do for months while their cases are pending.

For many, much less restrictive possibilities exist that pose no additional risk and in fact would benefit the individual and our communities. When not behind locked doors, people can help their families, create new connections or begin to get acquainted with a new country.

Barriers to more humane alternatives can be alleviated by congressional action.

First, legislation should move away from mandatory detention and towards judge’s discretion, individuals who can evaluate the danger an individual might or might not pose.

Second, programs should be established to help provide necessary services for alternatives to detention.

We at the Northwest Detention Center Roundtable have been providing alternatives to detention for select individuals who ICE has deemed eligible. Our work provides evidence of the success of such alternatives. Individuals who otherwise would have been in the detention center have been provided homes, performed valuable volunteering and mentoring, joined churches and formed friendships in the community.

Contracts with nonprofits already doing this work, as called for in the Senate bill, would be a fast and cost effective way to expand the alternatives to detention program. Detention costs average $122 a day per immigrant. Alternatives to detention can provide secure and humane immigration enforcement at a much reduced cost, as low as $22 per day. Expanding this pilot program to include more nonviolent individuals just makes good sense.

Legislation should also make it clear that humane treatment, from beginning to end of the encounter, including a safe exit, should be ICE’s responsibility.

When individuals are let out from our local facility, which serves as the regional center for four states and can contain people picked up anywhere in the country, they exit into the Tacoma Tideflats of Tacoma, an industrial zone not easily accessed by public transportation. Currently, ICE has no obligation to assist them beyond the front door.

If a person was detained in Alaska, he or she should be returned to their community. If a person was detained in the middle of the summer, but released in January, he or she should have proper clothing to make a dignified and safe exit.

While the Roundtable is working hard in conjunction with many other organizations and individuals in the area to help by securing safe transportation and meeting other needs, these attempts are taxing our local community.

People in the Tacoma area are being asked to clean up after federal agency action. We hope that legislative action can stir ICE to accept that responsibility.

While immigration is on the forefront of the legislative agenda and our national consciousness, now is the time to push for these sensible measures.

These measures do not take a stand on the amount of enforcement efforts, just the type of enforcement. They are cost-effective, safe and humane, and would have a real immediate impact on children and individuals currently in our community.

Robin Jacobson is vice chair of the Northwest Detention Center Roundtable and an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound.