Increasing immigration detention: sensible or senseless?

Eloy Detention Center, located in Eloy, Arizona, is a privately run immigration detention center owned and operated by the formerly named Corrections Corporation of America, now CoreCivic. The center is the third-largest immigrant detention facility in the nation with the highest number of deaths. (Photo by Elisabeth Morales/Arizona Sonora News Service)

The stark white walls, chairs, tables and ceilings were what first stuck out when Arizona State University researcher and professor Leah Sarat toured the privately owned immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona.

But as the tour continued and Sarat conducted interviews with immigrants, the white physicality didn’t seem so bad compared to the food and hygiene standards of the center — the third-largest immigration facility in the United States at 1,550 beds, with the highest number of deaths in the nation. 

“I think it was called chicken fried steak on the menu when I was there, and it was this really thin meat patty,” Sarat said. “I can eat anything, but it was bad. It was a sawdusty kind of substance and you couldn’t tell what kind of meat it was.”

Sarat also said women are sometimes given stained undergarments, and she isn’t alone in criticizing living conditions in Eloy and other detention facilities.

“Hmmm, how much time do you have?” asked Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s office in Tucson, a Quaker organization that promotes peace with justice.

Not only do the living standards raise issues, but immigrant advocacy groups say President Trump’s plans to increase immigration detention may be fiscally problematic as well.

About 350,000 to 400,000 immigrants are placed within the detention system per year at an average stay of about 30 days. Each day, there are 34,000 beds filled nationwide due to a bed quota enacted by congressional appropriation laws. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, no other law enforcement agency aside from Immigration and Customs Enforcement is subject to a quota for its detainees.

“Immigration is unique in the sense that the federal government, or Congress, mandates through the appropriation process that there are 34,000 beds filled,” said Laurence Benenson, policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum. “What Trump is saying is that he’s looking to increase that significantly. And I think it’s safe to say conservatively, he probably would have to at least double that number, if not even triple it, to detain and deport the number of immigrants he wants to.”

Trump’s plans would require more funding. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security fiscal year 2017 budget allows for $2.2 billion to be allocated to maintaining 34,000 detention beds for immigration detention centers.

Currently, it costs taxpayers about $177 daily per immigrant, including operational expenses, which adds up to about $6 million daily, $42 million weekly and $2.1 billion annually. However, these are just numbers for the past year, prior to Trump’s pledge to deport millions of drug dealers, gang members and criminals who entered the United States illegally.

In order to double the number of immigrants detained a year as Trump would need to, it would cost $12 million daily, $84 million weekly and $4.2 billion annually by increasing the bed quota from 34,000 to 68,000. Tripling would mean a 102,000 bed quota at $18 million daily, $126 million weekly and $6.4 billion annually solely to detain immigrants.

These figures do not include transportation or any of Trump’s plans to immediately begin constructing facilities to detain even more immigrants. To double the bed quota, the Trump administration would need to double the amount of immigration detention centers or expand already existing facilities. There are currently over 250 immigration detention centers throughout the U.S.

Trump stated he would be detaining and deporting criminals, but some worry those immigrants could be apprehended for something as small as driving without a license or not having a criminal record at all.

A family walks back to their car after visiting a detainee at the Eloy Detention Center. (Photo by Elisabeth Morales/Arizona Sonora News)

Benenson believes in order for Trump’s administration to get the number of detention centers they need in such a short amount of time, they will have to work with privately run detention facilities, which also proves to be problematic.

“Their first priority is profit, not safety,” said Isaacs.

According to Isaacs and Matthew Lowen, another program director for the AFSC office in Tucson, of the 250-plus immigration detention facilities in the U.S., more than half of them are privately owned and every six out of 10 detention beds are in private facilities.

Private facilities earn a fee per detainee per night and their business model relies on cutting costs in order to return profits to shareholders.

“That cost-cutting goes back to a couple of pretty consistent trends that we see and one of the most troubling is in terms of staff pay and training,” said Isaacs. “You get people who are less invested in their job because they are not paid well and they are not trained to handle situations and results in these patterns of problems with abuse and mismanagement.”

Isaacs says the fears being incited onto the American public regarding immigrants causing more crime, using more resources and taking more jobs is nothing more than empty rhetoric.

“To criminalize something that is not a danger to people in this country is a completely pointless exercise and at this point the only reason to be doing that is for these corporations to make money,” she said.

While private prison corporations earn a profit, taxpayers will pay for the expansion of federal and state immigration detention centers. To detain 11 million undocumented immigrants prior to deportation at a slower pace of 350,000 immigrants a year, it would cost $65.1 billion over a span of 31 years to remove them all and at a faster pace of 450,000 immigrants per year, it would cost $50.4 billion over a span of 24 years.

However, if Trump wanted to detain 11 million undocumented immigrants within an eight-year presidency, he would need to do it at a pace of 1,375,000 immigrants a year at a cost of  $243.4 billion a year, well over the $2.2 billion budget allocated to maintain detention beds. (And according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute, there are only 820,000 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with criminal convictions.)

These projected numbers solely cover the cost of what it takes to detain 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States – not the cost of transportation of immigrants, or the cost to construct/expand immigration detention facilities.

“It’s a lot of resources and money for someone who might well just be living in the community with their family, working construction, or working in agriculture,” said Benenson. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Elisabeth Morales is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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One comment Add yours
  1. Sensible! We are a country of laws. Illegal immigration needs to be stopped and all of the illegal aliens deported.

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