June 7, 2013

Instead of detention, many undocumented immigrants being electronically monitored

The federal government says it is less expensive to monitor undocumented immigrants through phone calls, at-home check ins or electronic monitors than to keep them in jail.

Claudio Rojas was released from an immigration detention center in Broward County in August. Shortly after, the Argentine citizen obtained his work permit, a driver’s license and the opportunity to resume his daily life.

Yet when Rojas recently showed up for his weekly check-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miramar, agents placed an electronic monitor on his right ankle.

Now he doesn’t know if or when it will be removed.

“After months of being out without representing any danger, now they put me on this device,” said Rojas, who in 2012 was held at the private Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach for seven months despite not having a criminal record. “I don’t understand what the point is.”

The federal government says it is less expensive to monitor undocumented immigrants through phone calls, at-home check-ins or electronic monitors than to keep them in jail. Recently, to save money, the government released more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants nationally.

However, although the jail population fluctuates daily, the 700 beds at Broward Transitional remain mostly full. And it’s not clear how many immigrants, like Rojas, have been released from the center and are now in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.

Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman, said he didn’t have the local number of immigrants in the monitoring program. But he said that at the national level the daily average is 21,634.

Several immigrants with electronic ankle monitors and immigrant rights activists questioned whether the real motivation of monitoring undocumented men and women is to generate more revenue for BI Inc., the private company with the only contract to provide the service.

In 2010, a year after BI Inc. obtained the contract with ICE, the company was bought by GEO Group Inc., a controversial private prisons corporation based in Boca Raton. GEO Group also owns Broward Transitional Center, the only private detention center for immigrants in Florida.

“This is definitely about money; it’s a business,” said Mohammad Abdollahi, a South Florida-based activist from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. “If a person qualifies for an ankle bracelet in the first place, why would ICE jail him for months or even years, which costs a lot more money to the federal government?”

Yglesias said that the alternative methods to detention are used on individuals who represent low risk to public safety and that the supervision of each person is based on an analysis of risk-of-flight or failure to comply with the other conditions of their release.

However, even the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises ICE, said that she doesn’t understand why immigrants who qualify for alternative methods to detention have remained jailed for several months.

“We are investigating the situation,” Janet Napolitano said in an interview with CBS News in February.

The federal government pays BI Inc. between 17 cents and $17.69 daily for every undocumented immigrant in the monitoring program, depending on the level of vigilance in each case.

The cost per day for each immigrant in detention varies from jail to jail. At BTC the price is $120 per day for each bed. Several civil rights organizations have estimated a national average of $122 to $164 per day for each detainee. This would represent from $44,530 to $59,860 per person for a year of detention.

GEO Group said it has no involvement in decisions related to detention or monitoring cases. In a statement sent to El Nuevo Herald, spokesman Pablo Paez said his company does not lobby or advocate on matters related to immigration policy.

“Per our contract with ICE, our company is unable to answer any questions about the Intensive Supervision and Appearance Program,” Paez wrote.

A copy of the contract between ICE and BI Inc. is available on ICE’s website. Most details regarding the cost of the program have been redacted from the document, with the exception of the total price that the government paid for the monitoring services: $372,814,176 for a five-year period — from July 2009 to July 2014.

After an initial detention of three months at the same immigration detention center in 2010, Rojas didn’t comply with a judge’s order to leave the country and was arrested by ICE again in 2012. He was detained a total of 10 months, which represented at least $35,000 in costs to the federal government.

“That money could be used in more constructive things to help the community,” said Rojas, who arrived in Florida as a tourist in 2000 with his family and has been trying since to adjust his immigration status. “They know I’m not going anywhere after fighting so hard to stay in this country with my family.”

For more than a decade, human rights and immigration activists’ organizations had questioned why the federal government continued to build and rent immigration jails instead of implementing alternative programs to monitor immigrants in the system. From Feb. 9 to March 1, ICE released about 2,228 immigrants nationwide for reasons relating to the budget sequester in Washington. Of these, 225 were released within the jurisdiction of ICE’s deportation unit in Miami, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

ICE identified detainees who were candidates for the alternative programs to detention, which prompted questioning from groups that advocate for human rights and civil liberties and activists like Abdollahi.

“Many of those who were recently released remained deprived of their freedom for months or years, despite qualifying to be out of jail,” said Abdollahi, who, along with other activists, has used his undocumented status to “infiltrate” detention centers nationwide in order to spotlight stories of detainees.

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