When States and Localities Bar ICE Detention, Aliens Are Detained Elsewhere

Not the law of unintended consequences, the logical result of shortsighted sanctimony

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 11, 2019

Drafting the headline is usually the hardest part of writing a post. I try to be concise and profound. Sometimes, however, I have no choice but to state the obvious. There is no more obvious fact than when sanctuary and other sanctimonious jurisdictions bar and impede U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from detaining respondents in their areas, ICE must detain those respondents elsewhere.

This thought is prompted by a report from AP this week captioned "Louisiana becomes new hub in immigrant detention under Trump". It begins (dateline Winnifield, La.):

Tucked away in the dense forest of rural Louisiana is a barbed wire-ringed prison that has quickly grown into a major detention center for immigrants detained at the border.

The Winn Correctional Center is one of eight Louisiana jails that have started housing asylum seekers and other migrants over the past year, making Louisiana an unlikely epicenter for immigrant detention under President Donald Trump. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it's now holding about 8,000 migrants in Louisiana out of 51,000 nationally.

These new facilities, a mix of old state prisons and local jails, are several hours away from New Orleans and other major cities in the region, far from most immigrant rights' groups and immigration lawyers. Migrants complain of mistreatment and prolonged detention.

None of the facts in the second paragraph should come as a surprise to anyone who follows (even tangentially) the current state of the immigration debate in the United States. In the last fiscal year (FY2019, which ended September 30, 2019), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained 977,509 migrants who were attempting to cross the Southwest border. Most of them were adults traveling with children (family units, or FMUs), or unaccompanied alien minors (UAC).

Under the Flores settlement agreement as interpreted by federal judges in 2016, the FMUs have to be released within 20 days. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), the UACs have to be released to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 48 hours, usually for resettlement in the United States (and usually with family members present illegally). That still left 280,272 single adults who were apprehended entering illegally across the Southwest border in FY 2019 (through September 2019), as well as an additional 62,674 single adults who were apprehended at the ports of entry along that border (usually without documents to enter).

That does not even count the aliens whom ICE arrested in the interior of the United States. In FY 2018, for example, the agency arrested 158,581 such aliens.

Many, if not most of those aliens were released on bond or paroled into the country. A significant number, however — those who pose a significant flight risk or a danger to themselves or to the community — were detained by ICE pending removal proceedings or, for those under a final order of removal, deportation to their home countries. Those aliens have to be placed somewhere.

On July 25, 2019, the Center for American Progress (CAP) trumpeted the fact that "State and Local Governments Opt Out of Immigrant Detention". That article notes, for example, that:

Over the past year, a number of cities and counties in California have ended their detention agreements following the passage of a statewide law solidifying a ban on local governments and law enforcement from entering into new or expanding existing contracts for ICE detention beds.

CAP also reports that this year, the Democratic governor of Michigan "blocked the sale of a former state prison that would have become a site for a new privately operated immigration detention center set to detain 500 to 600 people," and Illinois "became the first state to ban private immigrant detention facilities altogether."

The organization asserts:

[P]ushback at both the state and local levels is critical. Successful local campaigns to break ties with detention, often involving the voices of the detained people themselves, and local outcry add to the national narrative of the harms of detention and help lift local voices into the national debate.

What CAP and its allies fail to appreciate is that as major metropolitan centers (most controlled by Democratic administrations hostile to any Trump administration action on immigration whatsoever) cut ties with, or otherwise prevent, ICE detention within their jurisdictions, the agency's detainees will be sent to jurisdictions that are willing to house them.

That willingness is not always (or even primarily) politically motivated. As AP notes:

At Winn, which started detaining migrants in May, employee salaries have risen from $10 an hour to $18.50. Local officials have signed contracts that guarantee millions in payments to the local government, the state, and a private prison company based in the state, while still allowing ICE to detain migrants at a daily cost well below its national average.

I was an immigration judge at a county prison that housed ICE detainees, and such detention was a benefit to the county, the state, and the respondents themselves. Unfilled jail beds were sold to the federal government, turning a profit out of what would have been a loss. Trained correctional officers were paid good salaries (by local levels certainly) in jobs that provided significant employment benefits. The portion of the facility reserved for ICE was rather free for respondents to move around in, and was clean and safe — I would walk down the hall through the prison and have lunch almost every day.

Most importantly, those detainees did not have to travel hours to go to court — they walked down the same halls.

If the facilities in Louisiana are "far from most immigrant rights' groups and immigration lawyers", as AP contends, the aliens really have only have sanctuary jurisdictions and immigrants' rights groups (like CAP) to blame. ICE would likely prefer to detain respondents close to the immigration judges who will hear their cases, but when California, Michigan, Illinois, and others impede that from happening, ICE has to go to where the beds can be found. This is not even the "law of unintended consequences", it is the logical result of shortsighted sanctimony.

That said, my court (in York, Pa., population in 2017 44,132) was about an hour-plus from Baltimore, two hours from Philadelphia, and three-and-a-half from New York, and yet respondents still managed to find representation. Attorneys could appear by phone, and I was reasonable about lawyers not showing up on time.

I will note, as an aside, that there is a certain level of sniffy urban bias in the AP's reporting. Winnifield is less than two hours from Shreveport and less than three hours from Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss. (both state capitals, the kind of places that attract lawyers).

Moreover, the large law firms that have sought injunctions against the Trump administration on any number of immigration actions obviously have shown an interest in immigrant rights. They would also have both the money and the junior associates to send to do pro bono work in the locations that AP lists. There is nothing like courtroom experience for a future litigator, and no better place to get it than immigration court, with its all but nonexistent rules of evidence and clearly listed filing rules. On more than one occasion I used my administrative time to train attorneys to do such representation, and many shined in the role.

All of that said, immigrants' rights groups and bloviating politicians should be careful what they ask for when it comes to immigrant detention: They might get it.