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What Texas criminal justice reformers could teach the booming immigrant detention system

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

ICE opened the private-run Karnes County Civil Detention Center this year in part to house low-risk immigrants held under mandatory detention.


Earlier this year, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened its GEO Group-run civil detention center in Karnes County, meant to house the lowest-risk detainees, ICE enforcement and removal operations head Gary Mead insisted mandatory detention made such a facility necessary, even if the immigrants housed there posed little or no risk.

Despite deaths, riots, and a steady stream of troubling claims of abuse, ICE detention facilities increased by over 200 percent between 2002 and 2008. The immigrant detention network – half of which is now overseen by private prison contractors – grew fat off initiatives like Operation Streamline, a federal policy expanded in 2005 to detain immigrants who enter illegally. Under that program, first-time border crossers serve a 30-day sentence, while repeat offenders may get slapped with anywhere from a one to 20-year sentence. It appears that jailing so many immigrants for illegal entry has even begun to fundamentally change the makeup of the federal prison population. In 2011, for the first time ever, Hispanics, only about 16 percent of the U.S. population, made up 50.3 percent of those sentenced for felonies.

While ICE says over half of its detainees are deported within eight days, advocates and immigration lawyers all point to numerous cases where immigrants have waited months to even a year for a hearing in the heavily backlogged immigration court system. "Civil detention becomes punitive if it's prolonged," said Barbara Hines, co-director of UT's immigration law clinic. "Unless we're talking about shortening the times of detention, I think we're missing a key part of this whole discussion."

Since 2001, incarcerating immigrants has cost taxpayers some $5.5 billion, while adding to the fortunes of private prison groups like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which now rely heavily on lucrative immigrant detention contracts with the feds. But unlike the fiscal reality that sparked Texas' criminal justice reforms – a balanced budget every year, no matter what – the feds can keep on expanding and spending on immigrant detention as long as Congress approves it.

Congress is set to approve nearly $26 million for an additional 1,000 private prison beds under the Federal Bureau of Prisons' "Criminal Alien Requirements" program for 2013. Advocates with the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership say the CAR program's rife with abuse and waste, and testified last week at a congressional briefing by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who's urged for reforms in the immigrant detention system.

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