Immigration Detention Hits Record Levels

WASHINGTON — The number of individuals detained by the federal government on immigration violations charges increased to almost 28,000 detainees in fiscal year 2007, according to the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Aggressive immigration enforcement by ICE and the government’s decision to end its catch-and-release policy toward violators are the primary factors contributing to the increase in the immigration detention population, officials say.

Limited detention facility capacity and overcrowding has led federal authorities to manage increased immigration enforcement and detention through expanded transfers and contracts with local jails and private prison operators.

Approximately 63 percent of all detainees are held at city and county jails throughout the United States, officials say. The remainder is housed at eight federal and seven privately run facilities.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that four federal immigration detention facilities were operating over capacity. However, facilities operated by ICE were reported to be at 95 percent in 2007, while privately run facilities contracting with ICE were operating at 98 percent capacity, officials say.

The federal government began the practice of detainee transfer on a large scale near the end of 2006, creating a dedicated center tasked with monitoring and coordinating detention transfer operations, officials say. In 2007, the department transferred more than 19,000 detainees at a cost of approximately $10 million, according to official figures.

The transfer system allows the department to balance facility populations in the context of ongoing regional or state-focused enforcement operations, officials say.

However, immigration attorneys and rights advocates criticize the practice because it makes it hard to keep track of and communicate with clients, delays cases and separates families.

In one case, a resident alien fighting deportation following a criminal conviction was transferred from California to Alabama, back to California, and then from California to Texas. Legal papers pertinent to the case were lost during transfer, according to reports.

As enforcements and detention increased, ICE budget allocations for bed space have rose from $640 million in 2005 to almost $950 million for fiscal year 2007.

Increases in the number of people detained on immigration charges have also forced the federal government to speed up the number of deportations and the deportation process during the last two years, experts say.

Nationally, the number of deportations increased from approximately 177,000 in fiscal year 2005 to more than 260,000 in 2007.

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