Detention Quotas

National and local immigration detention quotas arbitrarily funnel people into a sprawling system of unaccountable incarceration

Image credit: Indira Prego

The United States has the largest immigrant detention infrastructure in the world with over 400,000 individuals passing through detention each year. The expansion of the system is in part due to an arbitrary quota from Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants in detention at any given time. This policy, known as the detention bed quota, is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system.

In 2009, language was introduced into the Department of Homeland Security’s Appropriations Act stating, “funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” The quota was then increased to 34,000 in 2013.

At a current cost of over two billion dollars each year, immigration detention quotas are a way for the private prison industry to protect their bottom line. The financial incentive is not limited to private entities, however, as local governments also place pressure on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since higher detention numbers equal more revenue for struggling county budgets.

The national detention bed quota is, in turn, bolstered by local quotas requiring ICE to pay for a minimum number of beds—that ICE is encouraged to fill and exceed—at key detention centers, most of which are involved with private prison corporations.

Local quotas, referred to as guaranteed minimums in detention facility contracts, act as another tool to ensure a profit-stream and can be found in at least half of ICE’s field offices. These contractual provisions promise that ICE will pay for a certain number of detention beds regardless of how many people are detained to fill these beds. And as a perverse incentive, ICE agents are then encouraged to increase enforcement in order to maximize taxpayer dollars that are being spent to detain people. (See our report: Banking on Detention: Local Lockup Quotas & the Immigrant Dragnet)

These quotas have become a rigid part of the immigration detention system and must be eliminated. Detention quotas are not only fiscally irresponsible and wasteful, but they help drive policies that continue to deprive liberty and separate immigrants from their loved ones.

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