Alternatives to Immigration Detention
Pilot Programs Point Way to Rights-Respecting Models
(New York) – Pilot programs testing alternatives to immigration detention in several countries, including the United States, offer governments models for more humane and rights-respecting approaches, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 94-page report “Dismantling Detention: International Alternatives to Detaining Immigrants,” examines alternatives to detention in six countries: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Human Rights Watch found that alternatives to detention such as case management services, can effectively address government interests in immigration enforcement while protecting migrants’ rights and often offering a range of other benefits.
“Detaining people based solely on their immigration status is harmful, expensive, and ineffective as a deterrent,” said Jordana Signer, Sandler Fellow in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of penalizing people who may have fled violence and other injustices, governments should protect their rights and provide them with critical services, such as legal assistance, mental health support, and housing.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 people in alternative programs across the six countries as well as service providers, social workers, lawyers, and members of civil society organizations.
Based on the findings, governments should replace immigration detention with community-based case management programs that provide a holistic set of services, including access to legal aid and guidance on securing basic necessities such as housing and employment, Human Rights Watch said. Given the existence of less intrusive alternatives, ankle monitors and other devices that provide continuous location tracking should be banned.
Alternative programs are both cost effective and achieve immigration enforcement objectives, Human Rights Watch found. Under the US Family Case Management Program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subcontracted with community-based organizations that provided food, clothing, medical services, and referrals to other services from about US$38 per family per day, compared with US$319 for detention, with check-in compliance at 99.4 percent. Despite its success, the administration of former President Donald Trump ended the program.
Rights-respecting case management programs have been successfully used in countries across Europe. While surveillance-based alternatives to detention are used extensively in some countries, they are rarely necessary. Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Poland all began pilot case-management programs in 2017. An evaluation after the first two years found that 86 percent of participants across the three programs remained engaged with immigration procedures.
The UK and Spain also offer promising alternative models. In Spain, some reception centers provide undocumented migrants with housing, a stipend, access to Spanish-language classes, basic skills training, and other assistance. In the UK, a community-based program serves migrants who have been convicted of criminal offenses and face long-term detention.
When US immigration authorities release people from detention, they often put them on ankle monitors. But these devices cause physical and psychological pain and carry a stigma, due in part to their association with the criminal justice system. This makes it harder, for example, for those who wear them to get jobs.
“Whoever finds out that I’m wearing [the ankle monitor], they don’t get close to me anymore,” said a 39-year-old man from Mexico. “I dream of the day somebody will cut it.”
People required to wear ankle monitors also are subject to constant surveillance, allowing for data collection that can be stored and used to track the movements of individuals or groups of people.
Canada uses voice-activated surveillance technology that also raises privacy, discrimination, and reliability concerns, although it appears less intrusive and burdensome than other such systems. People are required to call a number on a designated day and repeat a pre-recorded phrase. The program uses voice biometrics to confirm identity and records the person’s location if they are using a cell phone. While the flexibility that the voice technology system affords can relieve some stress, it is also open to abuse in the absence of effective limitations and procedural safeguards regarding how data is collected and used.
“Alternatives have proven not only more humane than detention but effective in achieving immigration enforcement goals at a lower cost than detention,” Signer said. “All governments, including the United States, should expand the use of case management instead of detention, and offer people who are often in highly vulnerable situations support while they navigate complex bureaucracies and legal systems.”