Congress's Illegal-Immigration Detention Quota Costs $2 Billion a Year

Congress makes federal officials keep 34,000 immigrants locked up at all times
Eloy, Ariz. Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Noemi Romero, 21, was arrested on a charge of criminal impersonation while working at a Phoenix grocery store in January. Because she was in the country illegally, she’d used someone else’s name to get the job. Romero came to the U.S. at age 3 and says she had hoped to earn enough to pay the $465 application fee for amnesty under a 2012 Obama administration program for people brought to the U.S. as children.

She ended up in a 1,596-bed immigrant detention center in Eloy, Ariz., run by Corrections Corp. of America under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security. Romero spent almost two months in the prison while ICE initiated deportation proceedings against her. She has been released and says the case against her has been dropped.

Despite the Obama administration’s policy of leniency toward some immigrants, a decline in illegal border crossings, and Republican pressure to cut the federal budget, ICE is locking up and deporting more illegal immigrants than ever before—and spending more money doing it. The reason can be traced to a particular obsession of the late Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, who once called an immigration reform measure “sheer lunacy.” He inserted into Homeland Security’s 2009 spending bill a requirement that ICE keep a minimum of 33,400 illegal immigrants locked up at all times. The bed mandate, as it is known on Capitol Hill, has helped fuel a 72 percent rise in daily detentions from 2005, when the U.S. gradually began stepping up enforcement in response to Sept. 11. “No other law-enforcement agencies have a quota for the number of people that they must keep in jail,” Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, said in June when he proposed an amendment in the House to eliminate the quota from next year’s Homeland Security spending bill. Republicans balked and the amendment failed to pass.

Keeping all those illegal immigrants behind bars costs $120 a day per inmate, or $2 billion a year. Congress has twice rebuffed White House budget requests to cut the quota so ICE can turn to less costly measures, such as ankle bracelets, to keep tabs on the immigrants it’s trying to deport. It’s “artificial,” Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Homeland Security, said at an April hearing. Without the mandate the agency could free low-risk offenders and put them on supervised release to ensure that detainees show up in court for deportation hearings, she said. “We ought to be detaining according to our priorities, according to public-safety threats, level of offense, and the like,” she said. ICE declined to comment for this story.

The bed mandate has been lucrative for prison companies, which hold almost two-thirds of ICE’s detainees. The stock prices of Corrections Corp. and Geo Group, the two publicly traded companies that dominate the private prison market, have roughly doubled since mid-2010. Last year Corrections Corp. collected $206 million, or 12 percent of its revenue, from ICE contracts; Geo’s ICE contracts accounted for 17 percent, or $255 million, of its 2012 revenue.

There’s an upside for lawmakers too: It gives them a way to show voters they’re getting tough about defending the border and serious about protecting jobs and businesses in their districts. At a March hearing, Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, complained to former ICE Director John Morton about not getting enough inmates to fill beds in his district’s jails. “Why not take advantage—more advantage—of facilities like this, and particularly in Pike County, who built a whole new facility just to house these individuals?” Marino asked.

ICE has been trying to keep up with Washington’s demands to send illegal aliens back home. In e-mails and memos from April 2012 sent between workers and a former ICE administrator David Venturella, employees were told to divert resources to increase their arrests and deportations because of concerns the agency wasn’t meeting its quotas. The messages, obtained through an open records request, included suggestions to comb through old probation lists for foreigners who’d committed crimes, search driver license databases for aliens, and participate in roadblocks with local police. Venturella, now a Geo executive, referred questions to a company spokesman, who declined to comment.

In late 2011, Congress increased the bed quota to 34,000. The Senate immigration reform bill passed in June would give ICE greater discretion to release detainees who aren’t a risk to the community, but a separate provision Republicans insisted on would likely continue funneling work to private prison companies. It calls for ICE to triple arrests in the Southwest, which could boost jail spending by $1.6 billion over 10 years. “That would drive demand for more beds,” says Kevin Campbell, an industry analyst with Avondale Partners in Nashville. “That’s one of the long-term positives for the industry.”


    The bottom line: The U.S. spends $2 billion a year to meet a detention quota set by Congress for illegal immigrants.

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