Advice on Public Spending from an Undocumented Felon

Hernández matches striking figures with striking stories in an insider’s look at immigrant detention.

July 9, 2014


West Dallas juvenile detention center Houston Texas HDR (Randall Pugh / Creative Commons)

Recent surges in Central American migration to the United States, particularly among children, have led to massive overcrowding in U.S. immigrant detention centers. In late June, media outlets were able to tour these facilities and expose the overcrowding, which President Obama has since labeled a “humanitarian crisis.” Government officials and migration advocates have raced to explain the roots of today’s migration surge: some scapegoat the “poor” Central American parenting habits that allow children to travel unaccompanied, while all serious scholarship points to continued U.S. intervention in Central America as the cause. But foreign intervention is met domestically with equal force with an upsetting fact: The detention of undocumented immigrants is a business.

Through her own testimony recently sent to NACLA, Claudia Hernández explains how the detention business works and what its consequences are for millions of immigrants. Aside from minor edits, her story has been left intact. Though NACLA is not able to verify every detail of her testimony, Claudia’s observations reflect those of other detainees who have reported back on their experiences.

As a wife and mother of three toddlers, my incarceration at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center made little sense. As a business owner myself, I observed a losing proposition. On September 25, 2013, I was arrested by ICE officials in Metro Detroit. After being processed, denied bond, and interrogated, I was transported to Calhoun County Jail and Detention Facility in Battle Creek, about two hours west of Detroit.

I was 28 years old, married to a U.S. citizen, and had three children, ages five, four, and 10 months. I was undocumented. And I was a felon. It was never a matter of whether ICE would come or not; it was a matter of when. My story is sad, but it was inevitable and likely well deserved. My story’s ending won’t change and is little cause for public outrage. However, the ineffectiveness, gross waste, and the nonsensical ways in which resources are squandered within the ICE system are an infuriating matter that should concern all citizens.

At the most recent estimates, ICE spends $159 per day to house each of its inmates at detention facilities across the country. “Detention facilities” is a name given to jails to soften what they really are: cold, dirty, overcrowded, sad, and full of poorly categorized prisoners. Let me explain. When an ICE inmate is booked into a jail, we are given a different color bracelet or distinct uniform to set us apart from local inmates. Local inmates are serving time on anything from DUIs, robbery, assault, and drug charges to those awaiting sentencing on violent crimes including murder. The ICE inmates are supposed to be kept separate from the local inmates, but overcrowding or “citations” interfere.

As if jail wasn’t punishment enough, guards issue citations or tickets to inmates for “misbehaving.” Citations vary from wearing the wrong uniform shirt to sleep in to forgetting the hotel size bar of soap in the shower. Regardless of why the citation was issued, the result is always the same: relocation to general population. In Calhoun County, general population was housed in pod G. Like a mother threatening to ground her five-year-old toddler, guards at Calhoun County Jail would condescendingly ask ICE inmates, “You don’t want to go down to G, do you?” Even without misbehaving, an ICE inmate could end up in general population.

On several occasions over three months, I witnessed as ICE inmates were moved from their dedicated pod and into pod G. They were moved just to accommodate new inmates or to make room for a “shipment”—what the guards called an arriving bus of immigration inmates. I saw a 45-year-old mother whose only crime was overstaying her visa being suddenly moved to small sleeping quarters with violent inmates whose frequent stints had made them intimately familiar with jail life.

Though they aren’t able to accommodate the inmates, prison contractors do not turn away ICE inmates as the federal contracts are too profitable and represent too much of their revenue. Corrections Corp of America (CCA), a private prison contractor who runs various detention facilities across the country reported that 12% of its 2012 revenue, or $206 million, was generated from its ICE contracts. Similarly, GEO Group collected $255 million, approximately 17% of its 2012 revenue from ICE. Not surprisingly, both CCA and GEO have seen their stock prices nearly double since 2010.

ICE inmates are sure money for the jails, as local inmates are merely billed for their stay. Yes, billed. As if a jail were a hotel, local inmates are billed roughly $30 per every night of their stay when they book out. Companies like Corrections Corp and GEO are eager to make money and Congress is just as eager to spend it.

Case in point, the 2009 Homeland Security spending bill included a bed mandate. The bed mandate required ICE to house 33,400 inmates at all times. With complete disregard for actual needs, true enforcement, or how many immigrants really deserve to be locked up based on their infractions. This number is nothing more than a performance quota—and an expensive one. At $159 per night, locking up 33,400 inmates costs U.S. taxpayers $5.3M every day, or a whopping $1,938,369,000 a year. As if that wasn’t expensive enough, the quota was raised to 34,000 in 2011.

Imagine local police departments having to arrest a certain amount of criminals every night, or the IRS having to audit a certain amount of returns every tax season, or the FBI having to tap a certain amount of phone lines. They don’t. "No other law enforcement agencies have a quota for the number of people that they must keep in jail," said Florida Democratic Representative Ted Deutch. The measure implores arrest decisions made out of need to meet the quota, not warranted by the immigrant's profile.

The ICE inmate is paid at $159 per night and the local inmate is billed $30 per night. What’s the $129 difference? Deeper pockets. That’s it! Both inmates are fed the same cold, bland, stale, and sometimes raw meal three times per day. Both inmates are offered the same inconsistent courses and substance abuse groups—sometimes instructors show up, sometimes they don’t. Both get lukewarm showers, torn blankets, and moldy towels. Both inmates are charged $1.45 per minute to call home and both pay amusement park prices for food pantry quality commissary. Both inmates are treated by the same medical staff and always given the same generic pain pills. Always. Headache? Here are some pain pills. Stomach problems? Here are some pain pills. Can’t sleep? Here are some pain pills. Obviously, this only generates more visits to the jail clinic. To be clear, this is medical treatment that is not included in the $30 for local inmates.

Eager to meet the quota, ICE officials claim those in detention meet current removal priorities. In a June 2010 memo, ICE director John Morton established these priorities. In other words, ICE created a roadmap or manual of sorts to determine how its limited detention resources would be used. Which immigrants should be apprehended? Which should be monitored? Of those apprehended, which should be allowed bail or ordered to house arrest and which should be mandatorily detained? According to Morton’s directive:

Priority 1 are "aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety." They are the department’s highest enforcement priority and include aliens engaged or suspected of terrorism, espionage, those convicted of violent crimes, or those involved in gang activity.

Priority 2 are "recent illegal entrants," most of whom are caught and released at the borders and points of entry.

Priority 3 are "aliens" who are immigration "fugitives"—usually people who have failed to depart the United States after their visas have expired.

Morton’s memo emphasizes that the department’s detention resources should be used to support the removal priorities. It further states that ICE should not expend detention resources on aliens who are physically or mentally ill, who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, nursing, or the primary caretaker of children or an ill person. Most ironically, the memo dictates that resources should not be spent on any alien whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest. So, in other words, the memo tells ICE officials to catch everyone who poses a risk to public safety and violators of immigration law, but don’t spend money locking up those who are not dangerous—that would be wasteful.

Considering the established priorities and Morton’s apparent concern in preserving resources, detention facilities should house the most violent criminal aliens, the most vicious terrorist, the habitual border crosser, and the sex offender who has evaded deportation for years. And yet, detention centers across the country house people like Fabian Rebolledo, a U.S. permanent resident and Army veteran, deported for driving with an expired license. Like Vanessa Sanchez, age 18, caught at the Texas border trying to cross into the US for the first time. Like Nancy Gonzalez, who was pulled over for a busted taillight and detained for 116 days. These are the priorities. Fabian, Vanessa, and Nancy allow ICE to meet the quota.

ICE director Morton issued another memo in June 2011 authorizing the use of prosecutorial discretion, giving ICE officers guidance to best allocate resources by detaining only those really posing a risk to public safety. Yet the department’s self-imposed bed mandate and budget demands breed a demotivation to exercise prosecutorial discretion. As a department, ICE has to keep 34,000 aliens locked up at all times. So why overexert themselves by catching and releasing aliens? No. Instead, they hold onto those they do catch, even if these aliens are not a priority. The ones that are easy to catch, and even easier to hold on to, are commonly referred to as “low hanging fruit” by guards, attorneys, and even the ICE officers who arrested me.

The low hanging fruit makes for high expenses and backed up court dockets. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, Customs Border Patrol and ICE together refer more cases for prosecution than all Department of Justice agencies, including DEA, FBI, and ATF. The United States locks up more immigrant aliens than drug dealers, gun smugglers, bank robbers, violent criminals and fraudsters. The spending follows the same pattern. The country spends more on immigration enforcement agencies than it does on FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, and Marshals combined. In 2013 fiscal year, Homeland Security had a budget of $39.5 billion. The Department of Justice, which includes DEA, FBI, and ATF among its agencies, was allotted $27.1 billion.

Homeland Security is a big spender even when compared to non-law enforcement departments. Last year, the budget for the Department of Energy was $27.2 billion, the Department of Labor got $12 billion to spend, and the Small Business Administration was given $949 million. The United States is spending more money on detaining non-priority aliens than it is on renewable energy, generating new jobs, or investing in new businesses across the country.

It’s one thing to detain 34,000 and with due process move them expeditiously through the system and deport or release them quickly. After all, ICE is paying $159 per night for each one. Unfortunately, that’s not what is happening. In my case, I was detained 87 days and would have been many more, but I opted for voluntary departure. Delays in my case were caused by shortage of judges to cover when one judge calls off.

Department of Justice employees, like most federal employees, have to use their earned time off during the year or else they lose their days. As a result, judges, prosecutors, and ICE agents alike, call off very frequently and in their absence, immigration hearings are delayed. My detention alone, not including transportation or administrative expenses, cost the United States $13,833.00, and I still returned to Mexico. You could have had the same result and saved the money. According to an analysis commissioned by the ACLU, the average detention is 404 days, a bill of $64,236.00. In Calhoun County Jail, there were inmates who had been there for more than two years and one from Jordan who had been there for over three years. Do the math.

Neither the country’s recession nor simple economics seem to affect the way ICE operates. Apparently, neither does plain geography. On September 10, 2013 a group of 37 women from El Salvador were apprehended while trying to cross the border. After being held in iceboxes in Texas for three days, the women were processed into Coastal Bend Detention Center near Corpus Christi. The women spent 12 days there and ICE determined it could move the women through the process quicker at another facility. On a Sunday night, the women were shackled and put on a bus to the airport, then they were loaded onto a plane for a four hour flight to Toledo, OH. From there, the women took a three hour bus ride to Battle Creek, MI. They were processed into Calhoun County Jail. All of the women were deported back to El Salvador. They were plucked out five or six at a time, each group about two weeks apart. They were loaded on a bus to Toledo, shackled on a plane to Louisiana, held at a facility, bussed to Texas, and flown to El Salvador. The last of the 37 landed in San Salvador on February 2, 2014.

I don’t have an estimate on transportation costs for the senseless relocations, but the 145-night detention of 37 women cost U.S. taxpayers $853,035.00. Where is the lean, efficient, and expeditious spirit the U.S. prides itself on? Where is Homeland Security’s adherence to its self-professed focus on “smart and effective enforcement of US immigration laws while streamlining and facilitating the legal immigration process”? While it can be found on page nine of Homeland Security’s 2013 FY Budget in Brief, it can’t be found in practice.

Lessons not learned. After the 37 women, another “shipment” of over 55 aliens was booked into Calhoun. They had come from Nepal, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, traveled through Mexico, got caught at the border, were held at a temporary facility, then shackled and put on a bus after which they boarded a plane, and finally were bussed to Calhoun County Detention Facility. A long journey for a short way home.



Claudia S. Hernández is a 29 year old Mexican native who was born in Mexico but lived in Michigan since she was five years old. She studied at the University of Michigan and ran a succesful real estate business prior to the denial of legal immigration status. Claudia now lives in Mexico with her husband and their three children.

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