Are 'Alternative to Detention' Programs the Answer to Family Detention?

By Dan Cadman on June 28, 2018

When it comes to complex problems, beware of those who offer magic beans as a solution. This is particularly true of the phenomenon of illegal migration by families across our southern border.

The numbers of such family units, as well as "unaccompanied" minors (many of whom are smuggled at the behest of family members who have already successfully crossed illegally) have skyrocketed in recent years — beyond any known in past cycles of illegal immigration. The reasons are a combination of push-pull factors.

The push: Most of them hail from some of the poorest countries in Central America, countries that also have difficulties with crime and violence, and whose governments are at various levels corrupt. The pull: Ineffectual border security and interior enforcement in our country that lure potential migrants with jobs and the ability to disappear into our vast interior if their claims for various forms of relief, including asylum, are denied.

The increase began under the Obama administration in 2014 and, with a few typical peaks and valleys, has continued to rise dramatically. Government statistics show that hundreds of thousands of minors and family units have crossed since that time, and key Border Patrol sectors report increases of over 500 percent in such apprehensions. How many get by is anyone's guess, although the Patrol and its mother agency Customs and Border Protection (CBP), itself a component of the Department of Homeland Security, hopefully estimate that agents catch perhaps 50 percent of intended crossers.

Hoping to curb the flow and establish deterrence and disincentives, the Trump administration ramped up strategies that the Obama administration had itself used — including prosecution of adults for the crime of illegal entry, 8 U.S.C. 1325, with the unintended consequence that the children who accompanied such adults were separated from them when charges were preferred. The left, seeing its opportunity, set up a hue and cry about the inhumanity of separation (conveniently ignoring the Obama administration's own record), leading President Trump to ultimately order that even in the event of prosecution, parents and children would be housed together at DHS family detention facilities.

This did not abate the cries of inhumanity, and has led instead to serious questions about the morality of detaining minors. It is a debate worth having, although to date it has been lopsided since not enough focus has been directed at parents who bring, or have smuggled, their children through treacherous badlands, in the hands of cartel members as prone to abuse as to aid these migrant trekkers. Let us not be such naifs as to believe that many of these parents aren't using the children as "get out of jail free" cards.

Nor have the media, politicians, or public leaders spent sufficient time addressing the dubious morality of a system that not only permits, but as a consequence of its ineffectuality, has actually abetted this illegal movement of families and children.

One of the more laughable proposals now circulating among various Democrats is to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), another agency within DHS that is responsible for the detention of aliens being held for violation of the immigration laws (see, e.g., here and here). One can hardly think of a more irresponsible proposal, in that it would establish a giant go-free zone in the interior of the United States, because in addition to detention, ICE is responsible for immigration enforcement within the interior. Abolishing ICE (and thus in effect abolishing all immigration laws in the interior) would create a horrendous game out of illegal border crossing, because if — if — you can survive the tremendous risks posed by the journey as well as the smugglers and sundry human predators, and then escape the clutches of the Border Patrol, you're home free.

Another, somewhat more responsible proposal is that instead of detaining families after they have been caught crossing illegally, DHS should use a variety of methods known collectively as "alternatives to detention". These include community monitoring through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and electronic monitoring such as ankle or wrist bracelets using GPS technology. Advocates charge that the Trump administration has ignored these viable alternatives, which have proven effective and less costly than detention. For instance, according to a recent article published in Vox:

Instead of keeping children in detention centers with their parents, families in certain cities were released and monitored by social workers, who helped them find lawyers, housing, and transportation, and made sure they attended their court hearings.

It seemed to work pretty well, according to ICE, though officers never had more than 1,600 people enrolled in the program during the two years it existed (compared to more than 350,000 immigrants who were held in ICE detention centers just in 2016).

The contractor that ran the program said that 99 percent of participants "successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins." That included the 15 families who were ultimately deported.

But in June 2017, after Trump took office, DHS shuttered the program, without explanation.

But is this a fully accurate and informed assessment? In a word, no.

The statistics cited come primarily from the redacted public version of a DHS Inspector General report, which at the request of a member of Congress narrowly examined whether ICE had awarded its family case management program contract to a particular bidder. The report offered a few snippets that, examined without context, seem to support ATD as the "magic bean" instead of detention. Yet context matters.

Consider, for instance, that according to the report, it cost ICE $17.5 million dollars to contract out supervision of 781 family units in the initial pilot of the program. That amounts to a per-unit cost of just over $22,407, a substantial amount of taxpayer-underwritten money. Multiply that figure by a factor of 100 ($2,240,700) and you still haven't scratched the surface of the number of family units that would need to be housed under such a scheme.

Then there is the ostensible "99 percent" success rate. The duration of the pilot was considerably shorter than the extended timeframe of the immigration courts' non-detained docket. In other words, the incredibly high percentage rate of success only covered a very short portion of the time needed to adjudicate these aliens' removal and asylum hearings. We don't know, then, whether or not they did, or will, actually show up for removal if-or-when ordered. After all, it's one thing to continue reporting to your NGO contact as long as there is hope of relief from deportation, but when that hope evaporates, are they really going to stick around and report for their removal? It's doubtful. In fact, statistically the government assesses the no-show rate, including for families and children, as exceedingly high. Examined in this light, the 99 percent figure is worse than meaningless because it misleads.

It isn't, after all, just reporting for court that counts. If the final outcome is an order of deportation, will these families then report for removal as well? If not, then as I have said before, the whole process becomes a hamster-on-the-wheel exercise because absent the ability to enforce the orders of the court, the process is a charade.

Past watchdog reports from DHS OIG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) offered a broader, more nuanced picture of the ATD programs than the narrow window quoted by Vox and others so approvingly.

Are ATD programs good at ensuring that aliens comply with the conditions of their release, show up in court, and depart the United States if ordered removed? Neither the OIG nor GAO gave ATD a clean bill of health in those reports (GAO in November 2014 and the DHS OIG in February 2015). The findings included rapidly escalating costs, and GAO also found that "ICE expanded the ATD program and changed program use, but has not monitored implementation of guidance to help ensure program cost effectiveness."

More tellingly, GAO stated that "ICE does not have complete data to identify the specific reasons field officials decided to terminate aliens from the program." In other words, the termination data was incapable of telling reviewing officials and program watchdogs whether aliens were terminated because they were shifted into another program — or whether they were terminated because they had fled. This is a remarkable data omission. The DHS OIG report made substantially the same statement: "ICE cannot definitively determine whether the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program has reduced the rate at which aliens, who were once in the program, but who are no longer participating, have absconded or been arrested for criminal acts."

The public should be made aware that right now there are plus-or-minus a million aliens walking our streets who have either absconded from their hearings or failed to report for removal. A million. This is a national scandal, and would be considered unacceptable evidence of massive breakdown in any other judicial system in our country.

Finally, there is the question of deterrence. After all, it isn't just about making illegal border crossers comfortable in their surroundings while they await their inordinately protracted immigration hearings. It is — or at least should be — a matter of establishing mechanisms that deter other families from making the journey. Each day, each week, and each month that former neighbors in the countries of origin see that family members haven't been repatriated, and are in fact faring well here, signals to them that perhaps the benefits do outweigh the risks; especially if, after having been released, they can still opt out by absconding once they make the cost-benefit analysis that hanging around is no longer a viable option and relief from an order of removal has become remote.

In sum, while there may be a small subset of aliens for whom ATD is appropriate, we should not look to it to resolve the crisis at our borders, including where families and minors are concerned. There are no magic beans.