Alternatives to Detention at the U.S. Border Are Humane and Effective

For many months, the Trump administration has pushed for cruel and ineffective policies aimed at deterring migrants from pursuing their right to seek asylum. Central to this strategy has been the prolonged detention of asylum seekers in unsanitary, cramped, and inhumane conditions at facilities along the U.S. southern border, in violation of both national and international law. The administration’s recent rule, which amends the Flores agreement to expand and prolong family detention and revoke standards protecting children in custody, highlights its callous disregard for the rights of asylum-seekers and the necessity to seek policy alternatives. Yet, even with increased media attention and public scrutiny, alternatives to detention (ATDs) have been nearly absent from Congressional debates.

The detention of migrants seeking protection in the United States is, at its core, a strategy of dehumanization. Adult asylum seekers are imprisoned for long periods of time even after asylum officers determine that they have credible claims. Parents continue to be separated from their children. Moreover, a 2018 memorandum of agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services has had a chilling effect on family members coming forward to sponsor unaccompanied children, prolonging detention.

In many Congressional hearings and meetings, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) representatives’ have framed the humanitarian crisis, especially in respect to children, as a binary choice of available policy options. The CBP “Families and Children Care Panel” published an interim report in April 2019 that states, “In too many cases, children are being used as pawns by adult migrants and criminal smuggling organizations solely to gain entry into the U.S.” As presented by the panel, the United States must either keep children in detention or leave them subject to smuggling and abuse. But that is a false choice. There is little evidence that large numbers of children are being smuggled by non-family members. There is, however, abundant evidence that detention inflicts lasting psychological harm on children.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains that detention is necessary to ensure compliance with court hearings. Yet, humane ATD programs are extremely effective. ICE’s 2015-2016 Family Case Management Program (FCMP) boasted a 99 percent compliance rate for ICE check-ins among families actively involved in the program. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office found that case management costs less that 7 percent of what detention costs. Case management costs $38 a day for an entire family, in contrast to $320 per individual currently spent at child detention facilities. ATD programs such as family case management also help ensure due process for asylum seekers. The American Immigration Council reported in 2016 that 66 percent of non-detained immigrants acquire legal counsel, while only 14 percent of detained immigrants do. FCMP participants were assigned to a case worker, who would conduct regular check-ins and update the family on their asylum case.

Several ATD programs successfully implemented in other countries could be models for potential implementation in the United States. In Sweden, asylum seekers are held in reception centers and released within two weeks. They are provided with case managers and have access to free health care, legal services, and interpreters. Canada’s case management program, the Toronto Bail Program, costs just $10-12 (in Canadian dollars) per day per person, compared with $179 (in Canadian dollars) per day per person for detention. Both programs report extremely high compliance rates.

ICE’s current ATD program, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), is at odds with best ATD practices. Run by a private company, the program is not community-based and provides asylum seekers with little information about the asylum process or the details of their case. The program relies heavily on surveillance via unnecessary and burdensome ankle shackles. Community-based case management is a real policy alternative.

Current political discussion intentionally avoids the root causes driving migration and the human needs of asylum seekers, focusing instead on the perils of transit and the supposed “national security crisis” at the border. The United States does not need to resort to indefinite detention to provide adequate protection, save money, or ensure rule of law. Detention is a policy choice and the current administration is choosing to detain significant numbers of credible claimants rather than release them. Refugees International urges Congress and executive bodies to adopt humane legislation and seek alternatives to detaining asylum seekers. 

Elizabeth Hutcheson was an intern with Refugees International during the summer of 2019.