A door has cracked open to the possibility of a future in which people fleeing their home countries might not be subjected to the oppressive walls of detention centers. In August, the US Department of Homeland Security announced a Case Management Pilot Program, and both houses of Congress are considering measures that would fund expanded alternatives to detention.
Case management programs work. Previously, the Department of Homeland Security operated one for families that was not only far more humane than detention, but was also effective at ensuring compliance with immigration requirements. Over 99% of participants complied with Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-ins and court hearings, according to a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission. Further, at around $38 per family per day, the program cost a fraction of the $319 spent daily to detain a family, according to CNBC reporting. Despite its success, the Trump administration abruptly ended the program in 2017.
The harm people endure both during and after detention demonstrates the critical importance of release into the community. If people require additional support, alternatives to detention, such as community-based case management programs, can help them adjust to new situations. The best programs take a holistic approach by providing critical services, such as legal support and guidance on obtaining housing and employment, and working closely with community-based civil society organizations.
The United States is not the only country that has successfully used such programs. Our research on case management programs in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Poland found that more than 86% of participants across the three programs remained engaged with immigration processes. These programs all cost under $9 per day. We also looked at a similar program in Spain, which offers assistance including social support, legal help, and language classes.
These programs have not only been successful in meeting government needs, but they also provide access to services that allow people to live in dignity while their asylum cases are pending.
In the United States, there is no time limit on immigration detention, meaning that people can spend months or even years in detention without any idea of when they will be released. Studies have shown that depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress can last for years after people are released. In a 2018 report, we found that substandard medical care contributed to eight of the 15 deaths in ICE detention between 2015 and 2017. It is possible that those people would still be alive if they had been released into an alternative program.
For fiscal year 2022, the House Appropriations Committee has sought to allocate $100 million for a “non-custodial, community-based shelter grant program for immigration processing, alternatives to detention enrollment, and case management services for migrants.” This is a good start, but is a fraction of the $475 million allocated to expand already-existing alternatives to detention, which include harmful, surveillance-based options such as ankle monitors. Instead, investing these funds into community-based case management programs could increase the number of people who are able to enroll in such programs.
Congress should prioritize adequate funding for case management programs. Detention is rarely a necessary or proportionate measure to take; nor, for that matter, are ankle monitors, particularly in light of the effectiveness of case management. Keeping people who are fleeing harm and persecution out of detention and off ankle monitors should be standard operating procedure that will achieve Homeland Security enforcement objectives at a fraction of the cost of detaining people for months on end, while demonstrating a concern for basic principles of human decency.