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The federal government has been spending an average of $4 million a day to detain undocumented immigrants, yet a puzzling mandate has prohibited the government from seeking out cheaper alternatives.

Congress requires that, regardless of need, federal immigration officials fill an average of 34,000 detention beds each day. That’s enough to sell out Madison Square Garden. Twice.

With millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., one might assume that there are plenty of potential deportees to keep immigration jails busy. But there are problems with the bed requirement.

1. Detention is expensive and isn’t always necessary

Here’s the part of the detention-bed mandate that should irritate everyone, regardless of their stance on immigration policy: each detention costs $119 per day, according recent budget estimates.


Detaining 34,000 people per day at that rate would add up to roughly $1.5 billion over the course of a year.

Alternative forms of monitoring, like telephone calls and electronic ankle bracelets, would cost between 17 cents to $17.78 per person each day, an immigration official said last year. Needless to say, that would be a lot cheaper and, in many cases, perfectly reasonable.

The budget that President Obama released this month called for a reduction in the number of beds that immigration officials should maintain each year. The drop isn’t too substantial — from 34,000 to 30,539 — but it would represent a scaling back. The proposed budget estimates $184.8 million in savings.


2. The mandate makes it harder to focus on serious criminals

The Obama administration says it’s doing a better job of prioritizing convicted criminals and recent border-crossers for deportation.

That’s true. But plenty of low-level offenders and non-criminals are still being deported. If you exclude recent border-crossers, roughly one in five deportations last year were of people who never committed a crime.


Ending the detention bed mandate wouldn’t necessarily change the way federal immigration officials do business, but it would alleviate the pressure to keep bringing more people into the system, according to Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“The more detention beds that they have to fill, then the more low-priority cases are going to get removed,” he said.

3. Conditions in detention centers suffer

At least 750 people joined a hunger strike that began on Friday at an immigration detention center near Seattle. The complaints: poor food and treatment.


The center is privately owned and operated (that’s another issue altogether) but overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Silky Shah, the interim executive director of the Detention Watch Network, said that the protest, which wound down on Tuesday, shows that the resources for detention centers are being stretched too thin by the 34,000-bed detention mandate imposed by Congress.

“I really believe that the quota forces ICE to use facilities that should be closed down,” she said. “ICE is continuing to use these facilities that have deplorable conditions and are not at all even in line with the national detention standard… If we didn’t have the quota, I think there would be more room for ICE and localities to scale back and close down facilities.”


The Takeaway: Congress should drop the bed mandate out of the appropriations bill altogether. Give immigration officials the funding they need, along with the discretion to spend it where it’s most needed.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.