NPR Story Goes for the "Wow", Neglects the "Why" of Immigrant Detention

By Jerry Kammer on November 21, 2013

On NPR's Morning Edition this week, reporter Ted Robbins had the makings of a good story about a congressional mandate that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hit an expensive target for detention of illegal immigrants.

But the story careened immediately into editorial Never-Never Land with host Steve Inskeep's sophomoric introduction. Then Robbins drove it into the reportorial briar patch with his own editorial slant on a story that should have let the facts speak for themselves.

Said Inskeep, incredulous and dismayed, "This next story – Wow! Imagine your city council telling the police department how many people the police had to keep in jail each night!"

Robbins described the mandate as "just part of the massive increase in enforcement-only immigration policies over the last two decades."

He gave my CIS colleague Jessica Vaughan exactly one sentence to defend the policy as "necessary because of the high risk" that unless the detainees were held in custody they "are simply going to flee or skip out on their" hearings in immigration court.

Immediately after that comment, Robbins went to former ICE official Victor Cerda, who dismissed it as "very simplistic" and "very expensive". Robbins then described less expensive alternatives to detention, including electronic monitoring with ankle bracelets.

Now, I know about the remarkable background of this story. I can even claim to have played a very small part in its evolution. I think if Robbins wants to describe the current situation with immigrant detention as part of an "enforcement-only" approach, he should have noted that it is a response to the absurd situation of a few years ago, which, for the sake of discussion, I will call "enFARCE-ment only".

Here is the top of a story I wrote in 2005 about the surreal phenomenon of illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande and searching for the Border Patrol to ensure their safe passage northward. Datelined McAllen, Texas, it began:

In the silvery-blue light of dusk, 20 Brazilians glided across the Rio Grande in rubber rafts propelled by Mexican smugglers who leaned forward and breast-stroked through the gentle current.

On the U.S. side, the Brazilians scrambled ashore and started looking for the Border Patrol. Their quick and well-rehearsed surrender was part of a growing trend that is demoralizing the Border Patrol and beckoning a rising number of illegal immigrants from countries beyond Mexico.

"We used to chase them; now they're chasing us," Border Patrol Agent Gus Balderas said as he frisked the Brazilians and collected their passports late last month.

The story explained that because ICE detention facilities were filled to overflowing and because the Border Patrol could not simply send "other than Mexican" illegal immigrants back across the border, tens of thousands of people from Brazil and other countries were being released with an order to appear later in immigration court for a hearing.

And because immigration court dockets were already filled to overflowing, that hearing was usually scheduled several months in the future.

The story filled out the farcical frame by noting that almost none of those hearings took place because almost none of the illegal immigrants showed up. They simply vanished into the continental vastness of the United States. Border policy had been reduced to an absurd game of "catch and release" on a massive scale.

The story stimulated the discussion about what Congress should do to end the industrial-scale mockery of immigration policy at the border. A few weeks after it appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, Sen. Jeff Sessions read part of it out loud as he questioned Border Patrol chief David Aguilar.

Said Sessions, "Tell me how this can continue, or how it occurred."

Congressional appropriations gradually increased ICE's detention capability from the 2005 level of 19,450 spaces. The detention-bed mandate, which came in 2009, required that ICE fill 34,000 beds. As Robbins noted, the annual cost of the program is a whopping $2 billion.

Robbins made passing reference to the problem of the no-shows, mistakenly reporting that many had disappeared after being ordered deported. He did nothing to explain the bizarre background that is an essential element of the story.

It may indeed be absurd to spend so much on detention. But it is poor reporting to fail to note how the strange situation evolved from another set of extreme circumstances to which many people responded with an incredulous "Wow!"