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Rights groups want to end mandate that keeps immigration detention beds full

Lauren Taylor • Mar 12, 2014

A little-known provision in the federal budget requires the U.S. to lock up 34,000 immigrants each day.

Yesterday was the official launch of a campaign to end the bed mandate, a little known provision in the federal budget that requires the US to lock up 34,000 immigrants each day. This bed mandate, or quota, is rolled into the annual appropriations bill, and has led to record-setting detention levels. A broad-based coalition recently exposed this mandate, and yesterday launched a campaign to End the Quota.

“This policy is unprecedented,” says Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. “No other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system.” Shah is the interim executive director of Detention Watch Network, which has taken the lead in the campaign.

“The United States has the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world,” Shah says about the broader context of the detention and deportation system. “And today, the U.S. locks up and deports more immigrants than ever before. The expansion of the system is in part due to the detention bed quota from Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants in detention at any given time.”

According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, the language of detention bed quotas was first introduced in 2009 by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. However, fixed increases in the capacity of detention centers began in 2004 with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Rolled into this 2004 law were set increases of 8,000 beds each year.

This past January, Congress approved the 34,000 detention bed quota as part of the 2014 appropriations bill. The current campaign aims to eliminate the quota from the 2015 budget.

Last week, President Obama’s released his own proposal for the 2014 budget, and included the bed mandate, though slightly reduced the number of immigrants locked up per day (30,539 beds as opposed to the current 34,000).

DWN says the changes in Obama’s proposed budget still aren’t enough.

“There shouldn’t even be a quota,” says Catalina Nieto of DWN. “We’re not asking for a smaller number. We’re asking for there not to be a quota at all.”

Yesterday’s official campaign launch and call-in day coincided with a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees the DHS budget and funding for the bed mandate.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has joined the call to end the mandate. Yesterday, Leadership Conference president and CEO Wade Henderson explained the connection between the bed mandate and the broader growth of the prison population: “The detention bed mandate is just one part of a much broader and indefensible criminalization of people in the name of profit.” In the past several decades, the US has seen an explosive growth in incarceration.

Henderson explains the causes of this growth, and the connection to the bed mandate:

“The failed War on Drugs, misguided mandatory minimum sentences and the boom in immigration detention have led to the largest prison population in the world and marked millions of men and women with a scarlet letter making it harder for them to work, raise a family, and even vote.  “Bed mandates” are just a euphemism for mandatory minimums and Congress must repeal them now.”

Henderson draws crucial connections between skyrocketing incarceration and immigrant detention levels, and the parallel laws that have targeted communities of color and thrown so many behind bars.

As incarceration and detention rates have grown exponentially, the percentage of prisoners and detainees held in private facilities has grown even more quickly. According to a 2011 ACLU Report, “for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government.”

Private prisons have a strong incentive to increase detention and deportations, and have spent millions in lobbying, most recently around immigration reform and immigration-related laws at the state level.

Many members of the campaign to end the quota have denounced the influence of private prison companies on government policy. The American Friends Service Committee released a statement yesterday, lambasting the bed quota and the profit motive behind it: “Denying immigrants their liberty to meet a quota while lining the pockets of private prisons and other contractors is immoral.”

For more on the campaign to end this inhumane and wasteful policy, click here.

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