The Alternative to Immigration Detention: Fugitives

By Jessica M. Vaughan on October 18, 2011

ICE's "smart and effective" immigration enforcement policies again have proven to be neither. It was reported this week that ICE's New England office lost track of a key witness in a high-profile illegal alien drunk driving fatality case because ICE officials decided to release the witness, Luis Acosta, an Ecuadoran illegal alien who had fled twice before and also faced state charges, on an electronic monitoring bracelet rather than detain him.

Local authorities became alarmed when Acosta did not appear to testify at a grand jury hearing on October 6. According to news accounts, he cut off the monitoring device on October 1 (or before) and was traced by cell phone records to Kennedy airport in New York on October 6. He is believed to have fled back to Ecuador, a country that does not extradite its citizens to the United States. Local police and prosecutors are angry because ICE never informed them that Acosta's bracelet had been cut, apparently because ICE and its monitoring contractor did not notice, perhaps because of what ICE is calling a "technology failure."

The real failure seems to have been ICE's decision to put Acosta, who also uses five other names, on a bracelet to begin with. After the incident for which he is wanted as a witness, he fled the state and it took two days for police to find and capture him. Acosta has been in ICE custody before, in Missouri. In addition, he has been charged in Massachusetts previously for driving without a license. Look up "flight risk" in the dictionary, and I'll bet you'll find Acosta's picture.

This case raises important questions about ICE detention policies. Since the beginning, the Obama administration's immigration team has sought to reduce reliance on detention as a tool to help enforce the law, suggesting that it is cruel and unnecessary. The agency has increased use of electronic monitoring bracelets as an alternative to detention. Little information has been released, but the results seem mixed at best, with some reports of high rates of non-compliance. A senior ICE enforcement manager told me the other day that ICE is finding out that electronic monitoring is not particularly cost-effective, either.

In the immigration context, detention is not for punishment; it is necessary to enable agents to enforce removal orders and ensure that aliens who are charged with violations actually will show up in court. This is not a small problem; as noted by my colleague Mark Metcalf in his Backgrounder "Built to Fail: Deception and Disorder in America's Immigration Courts ", at least half the aliens who have been freed pending trial did not appear for their hearing. The total number of absconders is well over 500,000, and growing.

The Acosta case is a perfect example of why there needs to be more detention of illegal aliens, not less, and especially those who have been charged with other offenses. As discussed in another recent Backgrounder, "Deportation Basics: How Immigration Enforcement Works (or Doesn't) in Real Life", this can be accomplished without overwhelming either the detention or the immigration court system. One option is to increase use of expedited removal, a streamlined process that would enable ICE to expeditiously deal with the minor cases and free up resources for special cases.

See more discussion of these issues tonight on PBS Frontline in "Lost in Detention", featuring an appearance by the Center's own Mark Krikorian.