Addressing the Unique Issues Faced by Immigrants in the Justice System

By: Michelle Parris

Courts Immigration Interagency Collaboration April 1, 2019

One in four children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent, and 24 million immigrants in the United States have lived here for 15 years or more. While these statistics illustrate how immigrants are inextricably intertwined into U.S. communities, the practice of detention and deportation continues to expand, threatening community stability.

For Safety and Justice Challenge members working to reduce the overuse and misuse of jails, it is important to consider the unique issues facing non-citizen community members that can lead to disproportionately harsh and unintended consequences because of their contact with the criminal justice system. Overlooking this population may actually undermine jail population reduction and race equity work that is central to the goals of the Challenge.

The criminal justice system has long been a pipeline to deportation for non-citizens (a term for immigrants who are not U.S. citizens). This impacts not just people who are undocumented but also those with lawful immigration status, including long time permanent residents. Non-citizens can face permanent exile from their communities even for minor offenses that don’t involve jail time and in cases that were dismissed. Sometimes an arrest alone can spiral someone into the labyrinth of the immigration system and the potentially life-or-death consequences of deportation.

There are several specific policy changes related to immigrants that jurisdictions across the Network can explore to promote the inclusion, racial equity, and fairness at the heart of the Safety and Justice Challenge. Some examples include:

  • Promoting diversion and community-based treatment options that do not exclude non-citizens (as many do)
  • Addressing immigration detainer policies, which can increase pretrial detention time as non-citizens struggle to resolve cases fairly, given potential immigration consequences of convictions and the looming threat of deportation
  • Studying the impact of local criminal justice policies on the criminalization and incarceration of black immigrants, who disproportionately face deportation on criminal grounds

All too often, non-citizens are overlooked when considering criminal justice reforms and made further invisible once in immigration custody. Immigration detention is a hidden and expanding driver of mass incarceration in local jails. Recently, it was reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails more than 50,000 immigrants daily, an all-time high and a number likely to grow as ICE asks Congress to fund a daily detention rate of 52,000 people in next year’s budget. While some immigrants are detained in for-profit prisons, immigration detention is increasingly being carried out through contracts with local jails.

People in ICE custody often languish in jails because of harsh immigration laws and a lack of due process. In the immigration system, there is no right to a public defender; so many people remain detained for long periods of time trying to find a lawyer and with no one advocating for their release or valid defenses against deportation. Many people are held without individualized bond hearings to assess whether incarceration while they fight their cases is even necessary.  For those able to request a hearing, bonds are often set at unaffordable, high amounts and people must pay the full amount for release.

This results in a system of lengthy, unjustified pretrial immigration detention in local jails that carries costs not just for those incarcerated but also their loved ones and communities more broadly. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of how the immigration system overuses and misuses incarceration. Community-based movements calling for the end of contracts between ICE and local jails are on the rise. Local governments have started creating and funding deportation defense programs to provide lawyers to immigrants in detention and improve due process for all.

To learn more about policies for non-citizens in criminal custody and the momentum to address the immigration detention system, view our Safety and Justice Challenge webcast recorded on Tuesday, March 19th.

Why Reporting on Undocumented Immigrants Tethered to ICE Is Challenging

By: Ryan Katz

Courts Immigration Interagency Collaboration September 15, 2015

Over the last three decades, the U.S. government has dramatically expanded the jails and jail-like facilities where it incarcerates undocumented immigrants as they await a determination of their legal status.

Ever since, detainees have complained of terrible food, low wages, and abuses from guards. Local governments often rent local jail beds to ICE, despite the fact that ICE’s supervising agency published a report declaring county jails “the most problematic facilities for immigrant detention.”

Efforts at meaningful reform have punctuated multiple presidential administrations. One such attempt coalesced into Alternatives to Detention, a program run by a private contractor that was paid tens of millions by ICE to provide alternatives in lieu of incarceration. One alternative, GPS ankle monitors, has proven especially controversial. In theory, the practice is cheaper and could lessen reliance on detention. But what’s the actual impact on the more than 36,000 undocumented immigrants who wear ankle monitors?

To find out, at first I looked online—but I found very little that spoke of the actual experience of wearing an ankle monitor. Not surprisingly, most people—documented or undocumented—don’t broadcast having an ankle monitor. I’d later hear that’s mostly because of the stigma of wearing one. In reporting my piece for the podcast 70 Million, I heard anecdotes of a neighbor calling their landlord to get an undocumented person with an ankle monitor evicted and of sales staff at a superstore following an undocumented person with an ankle monitor to make sure they didn’t steal anything.

I then took a more hands-on approach and called immigration attorneys. One connected me to his client, Marvin Franco.

I met Marvin at his apartment in East Palo Alto, CA. He told me how he and his family escaped gang threats in El Salvador, only to be detained in the United States. Marvin said the days in the detention center near Oakland were some of the hardest he’d ever known, separated from his wife and daughter.

When he got out, ICE required him to wear an ankle monitor. As we spoke, Marvin motioned to an electrical outlet in the wall. He’d leave the bracelet charging all night so it could last a full day in his job as a gardener. But he couldn’t move while asleep, or it would disconnect from the wall.

“It was very, very difficult to have a monitor,” he said. “It’s something inhuman. We’re not animals.”

I found that folks like Marvin craved for their stories to be told—and have them told the right way. They wanted every aspect of ankle monitors explored. In case the obvious needs to be stated: undocumented immigrants are not one monolithic group with a singular opinion. For instance, whereas most I talked to would rather wear the ankle bracelet over being incarcerated, one man found the monitor so stressful that he actually preferred detention.

The same couldn’t be said of the companies that placed undocumented folks in ankle monitors. I never received responses from GEO Group or Libre By Nexus following my requests for data or for comment on my reporting.

Instead, I relied on what was publicly available, like dull quarterly earnings conference calls. In order to stay positive for their investors, executives celebrated profits from incarcerating more undocumented individuals, by couching it in business jargon. “We expect the utilization of the [ankle monitor] program to remain stable in 2018,” said one GEO executive in 2017’s fourth quarter call.

To learn more about what it’s like to live with an ankle bracelet strapped to your leg, I reviewed documents provided by immigrants or their attorneys. The paperwork given to them by BI Inc., the subsidiary of GEO that runs the Alternatives to Detention program on behalf of ICE, opens with the following:

The GPS bracelet will not shock you.

The GPS bracelet is water resistant – you may shower/bathe as normal.

Charging a battery only takes 90 minutes.

But Marvin, along with other undocumented immigrants with ankle monitors I interviewed, said these directions can be inaccurate. The bracelet is often quite heavy, causing rashes. It’s been known to burn immigrants. Floricel Liborio Ramos, who spent 11 months in detention and then had to wear an ankle monitor, told me she couldn’t shower because the ankle monitor would start vibrating at random times or not work at all.

Marvin ended up wearing the bracelet for more than a year. Still, in order to be safe in the United States, he said he’d do it again. “In the end, it didn’t matter to me whether they put three or four ankle monitors on me, if I could be with my family.”

Ryan Katz is a reporter based in Austin whose work has appeared in ProPublica, Esquire, Topic, and The Daily Beast. For 70 Million, he reported on ankle monitors, devices that for-profit companies are contracting out to ICE to track undocumented immigrants. The open-source podcast is from Lantigua Williams & Co., and made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.