ICE Is Wasting Millions of Dollars on Unnecessary Detention Beds

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jul 20, 2022

For decades, the U.S. immigration system has consistently overinvested in the apparatus of punishment and confinement while underinvesting in practices that can help protect the safety and rights of people who come to this country.

This has led to a massive immigration detention system that is cruel, unnecessary, and wasteful. And recent reports reveal that ICE is squandering millions of dollars paying for empty hotel rooms and unnecessary detention beds. A privately run immigration detention facility in Virginia that was built to confine 700 people a day, for example, has been all but empty. Yet, lucrative contracts require the government to continue paying a private prison company $2 million a month to run it. Last year, ICE wasted millions of dollars on unused makeshift detention sites in hotels after the nonprofit Endeavors was given a no-bid contract. From April to June of last year, taxpayers spent $17 million paying for hotel rooms that went mostly unused.

Such resources should clearly be redirected. Instead of paying for detention and confinement, the United States should invest in building a federally funded public defender-style system for people facing deportation.

Decades of research shows that detaining people in prison-like conditions is not necessary to ensure they show up for immigration proceedings. In fact, attorneys can make the difference. During the first three years of Vera’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) initiative, which provided free legal representation to people facing deportation in more than 55 jurisdictions across the country, 98 percent of clients released from custody continued to appear for their scheduled court hearings.

Yet, the United States continues to inflict civil detention on people awaiting immigration proceedings, and many of those confined in prison-like conditions have no attorney to protect their rights. In criminal court, the law mandates that no one face trial and punishment without an attorney. But people facing deportation in civil immigration court aren’t entitled to lawyers unless they can afford them.

Immigration attorneys can cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach for many. As of January 2022, 1.6 million deportation cases were pending in immigration court. Of those, 800,000 (50 percent) involved people who lacked legal representation. Asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents or spouses of U.S. citizens, and even children are forced to go to court without attorneys, which makes it much more likely they will be deported, regardless of the strength of their cases. People who are represented by lawyers in immigration court are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond and up to 10 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the United States. An important study found that people in immigration detention without lawyers prevailed in only 3 percent of their cases.

Access to money should not determine who gets to stay in the United States. The majority of people in the United States support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation, according to a 2020 poll. Municipalities around the country are building their own public defender-style systems to protect the rights of community members in immigration court. There are more than 50 jurisdictions offering publicly funded deportation defense across 21 states. These programs work.

The Biden administration has taken some small steps toward shrinking the machinery of civil immigration detention, cutting funding for 9,000 detention beds in its proposed budget. Much more must be done.

The federal budget for fiscal year 2023 still provides ICE with $1.4 billion for a total of 25,000 detention beds. This spending is a waste. It should be invested instead in building a federal system of universal representation for immigration courts, similar to the public defender system used in criminal courts. The federal government must redirect resources used to cage and incarcerate toward providing attorneys to help guide people through their complicated legal proceedings and ensure that their rights are respected.