“Alternatives to Detention” Don’t Minimize Migrants’ Need for Assistance

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“Alternatives to Detention” Don’t Minimize Migrants’ Need for Assistance

By Ruth Nasrullah and Steven Pollack

Recent guidance clarifies that the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) permits the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to detain any non-citizen it alleges to be removable. Typically, when ICE detains non-citizens, they are detained in a local jail that contracts with ICE or an immigration-only detention facility (usually run by contractors such as CoreCivic). Appearing at a port of entry without a visa (there is no “asylum” visa) is ground enough to commit an individual, or family, to a detention facility.

Often times, entire family units with no criminal history are forced into ICE’s detention facilities, called “Family Staging Centers.” These centers, and ICE detention facilities generally, have experienced massive overcrowding and shutdowns as of late. To prevent and alleviate overcrowding, and recognizing that most non-citizens do not pose any risk to anyone, ICE began a program called the “Alternatives to Detention Program,” abbreviated “ATD.” Participants of the ATD program are permitted to live outside of detention facilities while their case is working its way through the court system. ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations unit processes and monitors ATD participants as their cases move through immigration court proceedings to conclusion.

Sign outside of CoreCivic Detention Facility in Laredo, Texas.

According to new data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the number of immigrants monitored by ICE’s ATD program has increased to nearly 180,000 as of February 2022.  This reflects a shift away from detention, which is more costly and was made more logistically challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surveillance methods employed through the ATD program to track non-citizens include location-tracking ankle bracelets; phone-in reporting; and SmartLINK, a phone application that uses location tracking by GPS as well as facial recognition to confirm identity.

When it comes to number of surveilled non-citizens, Texas cities have some dubious distinctions. ICE’s Harlingen area office has the largest number of people enrolled in ATD programs in the country. The El Paso office reached a record number in February, at close to 10,000 people enrolled in ATD. A third Texas city, Houston, is the location of a new, controversial initiative.

On Feb. 8, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a four-month pilot “home curfew” program, to be launched initially in Houston and Baltimore. After the announcement, the advocacy group National Immigrant Justice Center released a statement jointly with eight other organizations that said in part:  

Though framed as an “alternative-to-detention,” we have no reason to believe this harsh “e-incarceration” program would decrease the number of detention centers or the number of people detained in them. In fact, it would newly place hundreds of thousands of people under ICE’s control. It also goes directly against what the immigrant rights movement has demanded: an end to immigration detention in its entirety.

While that demand may not be met any time soon under the Biden administration, the most immediate issue is how people under ATD surveillance can meet their basic needs. Fortunately, this is where Ayúdame Nonprofit steps in.

Ayúdame Nonprofit staff member outside an adult detention center in
Santa Cruz County, Arizona, which, although understaffed,
was considered for housing non-criminal migrant detainees.

The organization’s founder and Executive Director, Steven Pollack, emphasizes that Ayúdame Nonprofit assists migrants whether they’re released from detention or simply processed in an area office and released. “In sum, we assist any and all migrants who have been processed,” said Pollack.

At the most basic level of human comfort and dignity, ATD techniques such as ankle bracelets and home confinement are better than the squalid border camps that mushroomed during previous administrations, or the crowded and cold detention centers that were filled relentlessly. But they are not without a human cost.

The nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch issued a report last November that concluded that community-based management programs are far more compassionate and far more humane than either detention or tracking devices or biometrics.  Their report’s conclusion?

…governments should replace immigration detention with community-based case management programs that provide a holistic set of services, including access to legal aid and guidance on securing basic necessities such as housing and employment.

Fortunately, that is just what Ayúdame Nonprofit does.

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