Several Twin Cities nonprofits that serve immigrants are raising concerns about a federal plan to add between 200 and 600 detention beds in Minnesota and nearby states.
The nonprofits, which offer free legal services, wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week arguing that a further ramping up of immigration detention in the region would imperil due process for immigrants, in part because free service providers are already swamped with cases. ICE posted a notice inquiring about the availability of extra beds for its St. Paul, Chicago, Detroit and Salt Lake City offices.
A recent Star Tribune analysis showed a marked increase in immigration detentions at five Minnesota county jails that contract with ICE, leading some of them to send local inmates to other counties or increase the number of inmates jailed two to a cell. Immigration arrests out of ICE’s St. Paul office, which also covers the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa, were up 78 percent through June of this year compared with the same period in 2016, based on ICE data.
“The government has an obligation to ensure that every human being here has access to due process of law,” said Michele McKenzie at the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights.
ICE said it does not comment on the contracting process. But the agency noted “a plethora” of immigration attorneys in the area, including a lengthy list of pro bono and low-cost options the local immigration court provides. It rejected the claim that adding detention beds would hamper access to representation.
U.S. law does not grant a right to an attorney in immigration court.
In February, the Trump administration expanded its deportation priorities, and top officials have said anyone in the United States illegally is fair game for removal. Authorities continue to target primarily those with criminal convictions and final deportation orders, but they have also detained a growing number of people they encounter along the way.
In the administration’s harder line on bond and detention, some supporters have seen a welcome departure from what they call “catch and release,” the practice of freeing immigrants while their cases drag on for years in backlogged immigration courts.
State Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, who has sponsored legislation to increase cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement, said immigration authorities must continue to do what’s necessary to enforce the country’s laws. He noted some immigration courts report relatively high no-show rates for immigrants who are not detained and have not posted bond.
“If it’s a law, you enforce it,” he said. “If you stop enforcing it, you have consequences and ramifications.”
A Star Tribune analysis of data from local jails that contract with ICE showed that through August, the five facilities together housed an average of 577 immigration inmates per month, after averaging about 360 per month over the past two years. County sheriffs’ offices charged the agency more than $7 million this year through August to house its detainees. That compares with about $4.9 million for the same period in 2016.
ICE’s inquiry about additional beds this month was a preliminary step before the agency puts out a formal request for proposals. That means it can be a while before a new contract is signed. The agency does not disclose how many detention beds it has available in the St. Paul office’s five-state area, and most of its contracts with local jails don’t state a number, so it is not clear how much of an increase 200 to 600 beds would represent.
In any case, local advocates say the announcement is a major cause for concern. The Immigrant Law Center, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, the Advocates for Human Rights and the University of Minnesota’s Detainee Rights Clinic joined legal service providers in other states, writing that the possible expansion would “jeopardize the lives and civil rights of those detained.”
According to the local nonprofits, about a fifth of detained immigrants in the state have a lawyer. Data show that those who have representation are much more likely to prevail in their cases. “This is why we do this work and why we are so passionate about making pro bono representation a part of the conversation,” said John Keller, executive director at the Immigrant Law Center.
McKenzie at The Advocates says an immigration court backlog and a harder line on releasing immigrants on bond have meant that more people wait weeks for a hearing in front of an immigration judge. Some opt to leave the country rather than face a protracted stay in detention.
“By the time they get to court, they are so exhausted it’s hard to continue pressing their cases, even if they do have a case,” McKenzie said. “This makes people vulnerable to just giving up.”
The nonprofits are calling on ICE to make wider use of alternatives to detention, such as release on bond and check-ins with immigration authorities. These options make it easier for immigrants to pursue their cases in court and costs less.