Already, more than 19,000 immigrants are in so-called “alternative to detention” programs and are subject to telephonic reporting, global positioning tracking using devices such as ankle bracelets, curfews, unannounced home visits and employment verification.
“This is a system that encompasses many different types of detainees, not all of whom need to be held in prison-like circumstances or jail-like circumstances,” said Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano.
Such high security may not only be unnecessary, “but more expensive than necessary,” Napolitano said.
The changes would save money, keep families together and ease complaints over harsh confinement conditions.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, detains nearly 400,000 foreign nationals on suspected immigration violations each year at a cost of $2.4 billion.
The planned changes will require Congress to approve additional spending — a proposal likely to encounter a strong backlash on Capitol Hill. White House officials said they hope to keep fund requests to a minimum.
On a typical day, about 31,075 immigrants are held at more than 300 federal, state, local and private prisons, jails and detention centers across the country.
The majority of foreign nationals usually held on a daily basis have been deemed “low custody — or having a low propensity for violence,” said an investigative report used as the basis for the planned changes.
The Obama administration will submit to Congress by mid-December a “nationwide implementation plan” to expand the number of immigrants under federal supervision while awaiting deportation, Napolitano and ICE chief John Morton told a news conference.
Most detainees are held for about 30 days before their immigration status is adjudicated and they are either deported or released.
Imprisonment costs the federal government about $100 a day for each detainee compared to $14 a day for community-based supervision, Napolitano said.
Morton said the plan includes exploring the possibility of moving noncriminal, nonviolent detainees to hotels and nursing homes and other residential facilities.
“These reforms will address the vast majority of complaints about our immigration detention, while allowing ICE to maintain a significant, robust detention capacity to carry out serious immigration enforcement,” Morton said.
Efforts to revamp the detention system stem from complaints and costs that arose during the Bush administration's crackdown on immigration enforcement. That crackdown contributed to a four-fold increase in the number of imprisoned detainees awaiting deportation proceedings since the late 1990s.
Sarnata Reynolds, policy director for immigrant rights at Amnesty International, said her organization was encouraged by Napolitano's decision to “find new environments for immigrants that will not require prison jumpsuits and jail cells.”
Both Napolitano and Morton emphasized detention would remain a cornerstone of immigration enforcement as the Obama administration moves ahead with plans to pursue immigration reform, possibly late this year.