Georgia Murder Case Highlights Problems with ‘Alternatives to Detention’

By Jon Feere on March 1, 2024

The latest information on the recent murder of Laken Riley at the University Georgia raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the expensive and controversial Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program.

As described on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website, ATD exists “to ensure compliance with release conditions and provide important case management services for non-detained noncitizens”. Put differently, ATD allows ICE to track the whereabouts of illegal aliens released into the interior of the United States until the alien absconds from the program or ICE decides that monitoring is no longer needed. Since 2004, taxpayers have spent about $1.5 billion on the program and the recent, failed immigration bill would have thrown $1.29 billion more at the program.

As explained in a draft ICE report published by Fox News, thousands of aliens enrolled in ATD abscond from the program every month and the average absconsion rate is 84 percent (the report looked at 47,905 aliens enrolled in ATD for their full immigration lifecycle and found that 40,300 absconded). Those who claim ATD is 90 percent effective are looking only at aliens who have been on the program for a short period of time; ICE generally takes aliens off the program after about 12 months despite immigration cases that might not conclude for years.

Now, a new statement from ICE regarding the Georgia murder case underscores exactly how ineffective the ATD program can be, raising many issues for Congress to look into.

ICE Statement Notes ATD Failure. In the latest statement from ICE, illegal alien Diego Ibarra — the brother of murder suspect Jose Ibarra — was allowed to enter the United States, placed on ATD, and absconded from the program 13 days after release:

[Diego Ibarra] reentered the U.S. unlawfully on April 30, 2023, near El Paso, Texas, and was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol and enrolled by ERO into Alternatives to Detention (ATD) on May 11, 2023. On May 25, 2023, he was removed from ATD and listed as an absconder from the program after GPS abnormalities. He has several arrests in 2023 by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department where ICE detainers were not honored.

I’m increasingly convinced that ATD is used largely as a means to placate members of Congress who raise concerns about mass releases of illegal aliens into the country. The message is: “Don’t worry, they’re being electronically monitored, so we know where they are and where they’re going.” But the truth is, the great majority of illegal aliens placed on ATD are going to abscond and disappear — it’s just a matter of how quickly after release it occurs.

For the brother of the Georgia murder suspect, that absconding took place 13 days after being released into the United States. And, in all likelihood, the “GPS abnormalities” probably started before May 25, 2023 (the day he was officially taken out of the program), so it’s probably safe to say that he absconded within a handful of days after entry.

ATD is an extremely expensive program that illegal aliens routinely violate without consequence.

But what happened after Diego Ibarra absconded from ATD? For the past nine months Diego has been running free, only arrested last week for possession of a fake green card. At the moment Diego absconded from the ATD program, those monitoring his GPS would have a general idea of his last known whereabouts and could have immediately sent a team of officers to locate him. That would be a challenge, no doubt. And it’s a questionable use of ICE resources for one alien. All we know from ICE’s statement is that he eventually popped up on ICE’s radar only after being arrested by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department “several” times in 2023. It appears that it was the taking of fingerprints by this police department that alerted ICE to his location (the prints go into a national database that send a ping to ICE’s enforcement systems) — not the ATD program.

If ICE is unable or unwilling to send out a fugitive operations team at the exact moment an ATD violation occurs, then the unspoken policy is to simply wait until the absconding alien commits a crime and is arrested by a local law enforcement agency. That’s not good for public safety. It’s also not a very good policy when that local law enforcement agency is in a sanctuary jurisdiction doesn’t cooperate with ICE. But it’s the way the system operates because ICE doesn’t have the resources to send out a team after every ATD violation — of which there are thousands every month. The question remains: What value is the billion-dollar ATD program?

Issues for Congress. Congress should ask ICE for a complete, day-by-day readout of every moment Diego Ibarra was enrolled in the ATD program. Where did he go while on ATD? Did DHS know that he was headed to a sanctuary jurisdiction when it enrolled him in ATD? What exactly does ICE mean by “GPS abnormalities”? Where was he when the abnormalities occurred? Did anyone at ICE attempt to reach out to him? Was there any operation aimed at locating and arresting him after the absconding occurred? What type of ATD was he enrolled in (e.g., cell phone app, ankle bracelet, etc.)?

Congress should also ask whether murder suspect Jose Ibarra was enrolled in ATD and, if not, why not? If so, did he also abscond from the program? Was anyone seriously monitoring him? When did he last check in with ICE? Did he have a check-in scheduled? Did ICE ever reach out to him after it learned his brother absconded from the ATD program?

If Congress is going to continue to fund ATD, it should place some parameters on the program and also add serious punishments in federal law for violations of ATD. Currently, ATD is an extremely expensive program that illegal aliens routinely violate without consequence. The program represents a huge cost to taxpayers but offers no serious enforcement benefits for ICE officers. However, if Congress were to make violation of ATD a felony and require DHS to immediately cancel any pending immigration case or benefit for an alien who absconds and make that alien immediately removable without any additional proceeding, that would likely go a long way in making the program effective. Congress should also require ICE to keep aliens enrolled in ATD throughout the entirety of the aliens’ immigration cases.

Congress could also require ICE to post a public notice every time an alien absconds from the ATD program, alerting the public to the violation with a request that ICE be notified if the public is aware of the alien’s location. Congress could require that these notices be sent to every law enforcement agency where the alien is believed to be living currently or headed toward.

Congress should also limit DHS from putting aliens on ATD if they’re headed to a non-cooperative, sanctuary jurisdiction. Or, better yet, Congress should prohibit DHS from releasing any illegal alien if their plan is to move to a sanctuary. Congress could require ICE to immediately locate and detain any alien on ATD who moves to a sanctuary. As part of the ATD program, aliens are allowed to move and change where they’re living, but they’re supposed to first alert the ICE field office handing their case. Congress could outlaw ICE from approving an alien’s request to relocate to a sanctuary jurisdiction.

Frankly, when an alien arriving at the border tells the Border Patrol that they plan to move to a sanctuary jurisdiction, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue on their way. Allowing an alien to head to a non-cooperative jurisdiction is effectively a decision to let them disappear. It’s the case that most illegal aliens allowed to enter the country are going to disappear, but it’s particularly problematic if they disappear into a city that actively shields them from federal immigration enforcement. There’s a real, and deep, frustration for many ICE officers about the Border Patrol releasing so many illegal aliens into the country because it’s basically one agency dumping a problem into the lap of another agency; at some point ICE officers are expected to clean up the mess.

ICE officers, ICE attorneys, the immigration courts, and every part of that enforcement system cannot take on the millions of illegal aliens CBP is allowing into the country, and yet those decisions to admit people are being made every day without any consideration about capacity of the nation’s interior immigration system to manage it.

Congress could transform ATD into a useful program, but that would require serious controls over how it is managed and the creation of serious punishments for aliens who violate the terms of the program.