Jul 21, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The cost of bail for immigrants is surging

Data: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
Data: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Immigration judges have been issuing more bail bonds over the past several years — and more expensive ones, according to data by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Why it matters: The higher the bail, the more likely immigrants will remain in crowded ICE detention centers for months before they're even considered for deportation.

By the numbers: As recently as 2005, all bail bonds issued by judges to immigrants were less than $2,000, according to TRAC's data. Last fiscal year, just 5% of bonds were less than $2,000, and 40% were $10,000 or more.

  • In FY 2006, the median immigrant bond price was just $50. Two years later, the median bond price had grown by a factor of 100, to $5,000. Last fiscal year, the median was $8,000.
This is an administration that loves detention.
— Former immigration judge Paul Schmidt, retired in 2016

How it works: Before an asylum seeker or unauthorized immigrant sets foot in court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decides if they will be detained or released until their court date. ICE also makes the initial determination of who qualifies for bail and how much that bail should be. Immigrants can accept the ICE decision, or argue their case in court.

  • Immigration lawyers and judges tell Axios that ICE has been increasing bail bond amounts and is also more likely to deny immigrants bail.
  • Denials and higher initial bond prices tend to lead to higher bond prices from judges, immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks said in her capacity as a representative of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
  • "If [ICE] sets it at $50,000, reducing it to $5,000 is extreme."

An increasing number of new immigration judges also come from law enforcement or DHS background, according to both Schmidt and Marks.

Winners: Many immigrant detention centers are run by private companies whose contracts with ICE often include a guaranteed minimum number of filled detention beds.

  • "What I've noticed is that whenever that space is full, that's when people start getting bonds," said Kelli Stump, an immigration lawyer and secretary for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Losers: Rising bond prices can have long-term negative effects on migrants.

  • Detention centers are often far from immigration lawyers. If immigrants can't post bond, they're less likely to receive legal representation, which lowers the chance of successfully pleading their case and remaining in the country, says Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration lawyer and a director at the Migration Policy Institute.
  • The bond money is not automatically returned to immigrants once the case is finished. DHS has an all-time high of $200 million of bond money that immigrants have had a year or more to claim, but have not.

The big picture: Bond prices began rising along with increased immigration enforcement efforts during the early Obama administration. They've continued to rise as part of the Trump administration's broader efforts to deter immigration with penalties and fear tactics, experts tell Axios. President Trump has long railed against "catch and release" practices that allow immigrants and asylum seekers who have crossed the border illegally to go free until their court date.

  • The administration ended an alternative to detention for migrant families and stopped automatically releasing pregnant women. Recently, they've tried to prevent asylum-seekers from getting bail, an effort blocked by the courts.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not return requests for comment for this story.

Go deeper