How To Make Our Immigration System More Humane and Effective

Posted in

Over the last few weeks, SC Appleseed has kept you updated about the ongoing crisis at the border, from what’s happening, what you can do about it, and any further drastic changes in immigration enforcement policy.

What’s lost in the news cycle is that none of this cruelty we see at the border is necessary or effective. We don’t need to detain undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers. In fact, there are multiple alternatives to detention (ATD) that are less costly, more humane and more effective at improving compliance with immigration proceedings.

The Benefits of ATD programs:


There are multiple ATDs including GPS monitoring devices, in-person reporting, telephonic check-ins, home visits and check-ins, and bond. The most effective ATDs also involve case management and community support. Over 95% of those on full-service, case managed ATDs appear for their final court hearings. Namely, over 99.6% appeared at immigration court when they were enrolled in “full service” ATD programs, and 79.4% complied with removal orders within that sample.

ICE used to have a Family Case Management Program (FCMP) where families received caseworker support without having to wear an ankle monitor. Programs like FCMP are effective when they operate directly with local community service providers, facilitate access to legal counsel, provide safe and affordable housing, all without extensive use of electronic monitoring. By creating an atmosphere of trust and security, ATDs encourage compliance.

Under FCMP there was a 99% compliance rate with court appearances and ICE appointments, along with a reported high compliance with removal orders, all at a cost of $36 a day. Unfortunately, this program was canceled, but similar pilot programs have shown cost saving results.

Financial Costs

And this brings us to the second benefit: ATDs are more cost effective, and this is seen beyond just the costs of FCMP. Every day ICE detains over 52,000 people, well over the congressionally approved amount of 45,000. By detaining more people than they have capacity to provide humane conditions for, ICE is running up costs both financially and in inhumane abuse. Part of the reason why abuses at detention facilities are widespread is because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is detaining more people than authorized when they lack the necessary detention capacity or resources to provide required oversight of detention facilities. An estimated 72% of all ICE detainees are in facilities run by for-profit companies that receive hundreds of millions in federal dollars each year. Yet, we hear continuous reports of inhumane conditions, especially for children. 

Meanwhile, as of June 2019, over 100,000 people were enrolled in ATD programs. These programs cost a fraction of the costs of detention and those enrolled in these programs have a high compliance rates with immigration appointments and court hearings.

In fact, ATDs cost 7% of the daily cost of detention. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it would take 1,229 days before time in ATD and time in detention cost the same amount. Meanwhile, the average person was enrolled in an ATD for only about 502 days, as of June 2019.

A More Humane Policy:

On top of being financially cost effective and creating better compliance, ATDs are much better at reducing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in asylum seekers and other immigrants. Research has widely demonstrated that detention can cause lasting PTSD and other harm and impedes access to counsel and an understanding of the immigration process.

By promoting family unity and allowing parents to care for their children, ATD is a much more humane policy compared to the current filthy, inhumane conditions that many immigrant children are facing at the border.

Toward a Better System

ATDs are more humane, more cost-effective, and better at encouraging compliance than detainment. ATDs work because access to legal counsel and the perception of being treated fairly are essential to both successful immigration outcomes and compliance with removal orders. In the current system, only 14% of those detained are represented by counsel, while many immigrants are treated with contempt and cruelty. Appleseed supports the Detention Oversight Not Expansion Act, recent legislation introduced that would address the detention crisis.

ATDs are only one policy among many we need to create a more humane immigration system. For one, immigrants need to be informed about their rights when interacting with immigration authorities, as well as their obligations before being released. Clear information supports compliance and knowing one’s rights is at least a minor safeguard from illegal treatment.

Unfortunately, many people who are released from custody at the border receive insufficient information or information in a language they don’t understand, feeling helpless in the face of the immigration system. Community-based ATD programs are one of many policies that provide clarity and connect immigrants with the supports and resources they need to both complete the immigration court process and support their families.

Beyond ATD programs and providing better information to released immigrants and asylum seekers, we also need to fix the immigration court system. Currently, immigration courts lack the resources to hear cases in a timely, reasonable manner. Some people wait years for a hearing and these delays undermine the system’s integrity. The Administration’s executive orders are only making the problems worse. By detaining immigrants who would otherwise await a court date indefinitely, we are choosing to detain people indefinitely while the conditions of their detention facilities only get worse.

Over the long term, congress will need to act to fix these deep problems in our immigration system, but for now, increased ATD policies are a great first step.

Information provided by the Immigrant Justice Center’s flyer found here