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MPI Report Proposes Greater Use of Supervised Release as More Effective and Fairer than Jailing Migrants in the U.S. Immigration Detention System
Press Release
Wednesday, August 25, 2021

MPI Report Proposes Greater Use of Supervised Release as More Effective and Fairer than Jailing Migrants in the U.S. Immigration Detention System

WASHINGTON — The U.S. immigration detention system has long been criticized for its prison-like conditions and the health risks to which asylum seekers and other migrants are exposed—risks that have come into even greater focus during the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, the pandemic and enforcement policy changes by the Biden administration have led to a notable drop in detention, with 27,000 migrants held as of July—down from 50,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2019. This reduction could give the new administration greater flexibility to rethink the immigration system’s reliance on detention in favor of options such as supervised release, case management, and access to legal advice to ensure appearance at removal proceedings, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report proposes.

The report, the latest from MPI’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative, offers a different approach to the extensive system of detention for many removable noncitizens arrested in the U.S. interior and apprehended at the border. It proposes building a system that makes release with supervision and case management the prevailing methods—whenever possible—for ensuring compliance with the requirements of the removal process. Making this shift will have to be gradual and begin with pilot projects that test and refine new programs and methods for administering them.

Investing in supervised release strategies and programs not only addresses well-documented humanitarian and health risks but would also be less expensive than the current detention system. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention cost on average $144 per migrant per day in FY 2021, whereas alternatives to detention have ranged between $4 and $38 per day, the report finds, depending on the nature of the supervision.

“Despite the challenges, responding to current and likely future immigration realities both at U.S. borders and in the interior calls for rethinking the role and nature of the immigration custody system, steering it away from a punitive, detention-centered approach and toward more proportionate and cost-effective policies that still ensure compliance with immigration court and removal proceedings,” authors Randy Capps and Doris Meissner write.

The report, From Jailers to Case Managers: Redesigning the U.S. Immigration Detention System to Be Effective and Fair, puts forth a custody system that would:

  • Detain individuals who pose public safety risks. Those who have been convicted of serious, non-immigration crimes would continue to be held in secure detention facilities. However, this is a small proportion of the detained population and would allow ICE to consolidate its system into fewer facilities. In June 2021, fewer than 5,000 people in immigration detention had any U.S. criminal conviction.
  • Use the least restrictive feasible custody options for others. Others in ICE custody—both migrants apprehended at the border and those arrested in the U.S. interior—should be placed in supervision programs based on an assessment of risks and needs conducted by specially designated and trained personnel.
  • Provide case management and access to legal advice and social services. Legal assistance is key to helping people understand their rights and responsibilities in immigration and removal proceedings and has also been found to increase attendance at court hearings. According to data from 2007 through 2012, only 7 percent of those with attorneys were ordered removed in absentia because they missed an immigration court hearing, compared with 68 percent of those who were not represented.
  • Design supervised release strategies that ensure that immigrants appear in immigration court and comply with the removal process. Measures that have proven to promote compliance include robust community supervision, intensive case management and imposing bonds. Previous pilot initiatives, such as the 2016-17 ICE Family Case Management Program, can provide useful lessons for designing such policies.

The report is available here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/redesigning-us-immigration-detention-system.

This report is part of a multiyear Migration Policy Institute (MPI) project, Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy. At a time when U.S. immigration realities are changing rapidly, this initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision of the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. To learn more about the project and read the other studies generated by the initiative, see bit.ly/RethinkingImmigration.

And to receive email updates from the initiative, sign up here.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.