How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration detainee releases: Highlights from the economics of detention

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Housing someone in an immigrant detention center costs, on average,  more than some Americans earn in a day. In 2011, the federal government paid $112.83 per day on average to detain one individual for one day; a more recent non-governmental estimate is even higher.  In fiscal year 2012, more than $2 billion was set aside for immigrant custody costs.

Where do these taxpayer dollars go? The lucrative business of immigrant detention is no secret, with millions each year going to the private prison companies that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now that detention is again in the news after ICE released hundreds of detainees this week, attributed to looming federal budget cuts, here are some quick highlights from the economics of immigrant detention:

  • In 2005, ICE's custody appropriation was only $504 million; that had jumped to $1.6 billion by 2008 to today's $2 billion. Much of this money goes to outside contractors, as only  a small number of the roughly 250 detention facilities around the country are federally owned. According to ICE, in 2011, only around 13 percent of ICE detainees were held in handful of agency-owned detention centers. 
  • Meanwhile, about 84 percent of ICE's detained immigrants - upwards of 30,000 on any given day - are housed in either contracted facilities owned by private companies, or in state or local facilities where ICE rents space on contract. The latter are referred to as "Intergovernmental Service Agreements," or IGSAs. Some of these are also run by private companies.
  • The top private prison company that ICE contracts with is  Corrections Corporation of America , based in Texas, followed by the Florida-based GEO Group . CCA, which earned about $1.75 billion last year, houses the most ICE detainees. ICE contracts accounted for 12 percent of CCA's total revenue in 2011, 2010 and 2009, according to CCA's 2011 year-end report, with some contracts written to contain  “take-or-pay” clauses that guarantee the company a certain amount of revenue regardless of occupancy.
  • Local jurisdictions benefit from ICE contracts, too. These include Los Angeles County, which contracts its Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster to ICE, and Orange County, which rents bed space to the agency  for immigrant detainees at two of its jails. Other counties act as middlemen, contracting with private prison companies that build and operate in their jurisdiction, then contracting out bed space to ICE.
  • The agency's need for contracted bed space is a long and complicated one, but the current demand dates back to the late 1990s, when the effects of 1996 immigration measures that made more immigrants - including legal ones - deportable began to be felt. Tighter border and interior enforcement policies following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks landed more immigrants in the deportation process, fueling demand. 
  • This demand has multiplied since, as illustrated in a report by the National Immigration Forum last year: " The number of daily detention beds has nearly doubled over the past eight years, from 18,000 in 2004 to the current capacity of 34,000. From 2001 to 2010 the total number of immigrants who pass through ICE detention per year has also nearly doubled, from 209,000 individuals in 2001 to almost 392,000 individuals in 2010."
  • The daily cost of holding a detainee is typically referred to as a "man-day" in prison industry jargon. These lucrative per-diems have coaxed trouble in the past: In 2006, when CCA lost 200 detainee beds in San Diego to the county, the company held onto its ICE detainees by housing three to a two-man cell. This led to an overcrowding lawsuit, one of many lawsuits filed against CCA and ICE over detention conditions that eventually led the government to revise its detention standards.

Lastly, detaining immigrants adds up: Using ICE's lower-end average cost of $112.83 per "man-day," a mere 1,000 detainees costs the agency  nearly $113,000 a day. Over the course of a month - not an unusual length of stay, as some appealing deportation stay much longer - these same 1,000 detainees  cost the agency almost $3.4 million. 

In a statement explaining the release of hundreds of detainees this week,  ICE officials said the agency had "placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," or supervised release. For most detainees, this means release on their own recognizance with the expectation they'll show up for hearings and check in with agency officials as required.

Others deemed more of a risk are being monitored via electronic ankle bracelet, according to the agency. As with any security device, these also cost money - but less.

Read more details about ICE detention costs here.

RELATED: Sequestration timeline

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