The Gentle Way of Detainment

October 31, 2008

The growing demand in the United States for immigrant--detention beds has led to a new “virtual” form of detainment meant to save the government money. The Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), launched in 2004 as an alternative to detainment, offers some undocumented immigrants the option to be released from detention after they agree to a series of strict rules, including a 12-hour home curfew, three face-to-face meetings per week with their caseworker, and unannounced telephone calls and visits.

In addition, each immigrant is fitted with a GPS monitoring ankle bracelet and required to install voice-recognition technology on his or her home telephone line, which allows caseworkers to confirm they are speaking to the ISAP participant. Only immigrants who are not subject to mandatory detention and are not considered a threat to the community or a flight risk can participate. After 30 days in this intense phase, participants usually graduate to the intermediate phase, in which the bracelet is removed and the visits and phone calls are reduced. The final stage involves still fewer visits and phone calls, and usually continues until the immigrant is deported.

Kerry Sherlock Talbot, the associate director of Advocacy, Family and Due Process for the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, recalls that when the government first proposed the program, many nonprofit service providers supported it, hoping it would create grant programs for community agencies to staff caseworkers who would provide legal information and encourage court appearances, and perhaps even run group homes as an alternative to penal detention. Instead, they got outsourced services and ankle bracelets.

Now immigration lawyers and advocates say ICE is frequently- offering the program to people who have already paid a bond or otherwise been released on their own recognizance. Consequently, few detention beds are emptied by ISAP, undermining the program’s anticipated cost-savings effect.

“The way [ICE] sees the program, it is more expensive. They are viewing it as an add-on, to be applied to people who are already out,” Sherlock Talbot says.

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration has said electronic monitoring “constitutes another form of detention, rather than a meaningful alternative” to it, and immigrant advocacy groups like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service complain that ISAP operates with little transparency. For example, LIRS says ICE has not shared its enrollment criteria or the indicators of success that permit participants to graduate to the less intense phases. Individual officers appear to have a lot of discretion in each case, and decisions on individual cases sometimes appear arbitrary.

ISAP is run by Behavioral Interventions (BI), a Boulder-based company with years of experience administering state and local home-arrest and felon-reintegration programs nationwide, to run ISAP. According to OMB Watch, which tracks federal spending, ICE has signed contracts with BI for almost $40 million for services since the program began. BI, which controls more than half of the electronic-monitoring industry, manufactures the GPS-monitoring ankle bracelets and radio frequency receivers used in the program.

Since the government’s 2003 launching of Operation Endgame, whose mission is to deport all deportable immigrants by 2012, the demand for beds has ballooned. ICE’s bed capacity has grown from 20,800 in 2006 to a projected 33,000 for 2009. ISAP began in eight U.S. cities to help cut down on costs (it now operates in 12 cities); to date, some 8,500 immigrants have participated nationwide, and almost 4,000 are currently enrolled as of this writing. According to its 2008 budget, the agency spends $95 per day to detain an immigrant in a facility, compared with $12 a day under ISAP.

Immigration authorities have been working since the late1990s to strike a balance between the escalating demand for detention space and the pressure to lower costs. In 1997, the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services contracted the New York City–based Vera Institute of Justice to develop an alternative program that could reduce the reliance on detention space while ensuring immigrants’ appearance in court. From 1997 to 2000, Vera piloted the Appearance Assistance Program (AAP).

Like ISAP, the AAP required frequent face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, and home visits, and put participants in touch with free or low-cost lawyers. But unlike ISAP, the program also provided participants with references to food pantries, health clinics, English-language classes, and other social-service agencies, and it did not use electronic-monitoring devices. Oren Root, who served as director of the AAP, says he and his team of researchers considered using electronic monitoring for the INS-sponsored monitoring program but opted not to.

“We decided to try to see whether a combination of supervision and incentives, such as referrals to the community, could be used without using electronic monitoring. We were successful in showing we could get good results without using [them],” Root says. The result was a 91% appearance rate for participants, compared with 71% appearance rate for nonparticipants. ISAP has so far garnered 99% overall appearance rates and a 94% rate for final-removal hearings, according to ICE.

Janis Rosheuvel, an organizer with New York City’s Families for Freedom, a group that fights family separation caused by deportation, says ISAP is just another example of the federal government’s criminalization of the deportation process, in cahoots with private industry.

“It is not an alternative to detention,” Rosheuvel says. “It is an alternative to people’s freedom of movement. The notion of alternatives to detention is that people will be released into the community and connected with local agencies, not placed in nonstop monitoring.”

Gabriela Reardon is a freelance journalist based in New York. This article is a reworked version of “Immigrants Fight Restrictions at Home,” which appeared in the September 8 addition of City Limits Weekly (

Tags: homeland security, US immigration, ICE, detainment, ISAP

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