Feb 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden reinvents migrant detention

Illustration of a United States flag-shaped spiral notebook with a hand writing names in it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration is poised to reshape the way the government tracks undocumented immigrants awaiting court proceedings, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: There are nearly 180,000 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. already being monitored with ankle bracelets and other traceable devices. The administration is planning an expanded home confinement and curfew pilot program — with the aim of curbing for-profit detention spaces.

  • President Biden made ending for-profit detention a campaign promise. He hasn't fulfilled it yet, but Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently called detention reform a priority.
  • It would surely face criticism from those on the right who think harsh detention policies are necessary to curb illegal immigration.
  • A growing court backlog already means a years-long wait for immigrants in monitoring programs.

Since taking office in January 2021, the president and his team have been chipping away at the reliance on detention facilities.

  • They've been investing in alternatives allowing migrants to live and work in the United States while awaiting further court proceedings.

During that same period, there's been a record number of migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • The influx has continued this year, and the demographic breakdown of those crossing has been changing.
  • People are coming from farther away — including Haiti, Venezuela and in some cases as far as India — to reach Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Driving the news: The new pilot program will launch in Baltimore and Houston with a couple hundred immigrants in the coming weeks, according to a DHS official.

  • A nationwide program is expected later this year.
  • It will involve stricter monitoring than other alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs right now, but the specific requirements as to when someone must be at home could vary by case, Axios is told.

Between the lines: The administration has already stopped keeping migrant families in detention centers, as Axios has reported.

  • And during the last three weeks, half of the single adults who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border have been released with ankle bracelets or other tracking mechanisms, according to the official.
  • That population had typically been locked up.

By the numbers: As of last weekend, there were just under 179,000 migrants in ATD programs.

  • They're monitored with various trackable devices, including cellphones, bracelets and smartwatches.
  • The total is deceptively low, since it only accounts for the head of a household in the program. There are likely thousands more migrant spouses and kids in the U.S. accompanying the roughly 180,000 who are registered.
  • For perspective, when Biden took office, there were only roughly 35,000 people in ATD programs, according to internal data viewed by Axios.

The government anticipates the rapid ramp-up to continue.

  • Officials have asked Congress to find funds to allow as many as 350,000 people to be enrolled by the end of the year or next, according to sources familiar with the issue.
  • "Alternatives-to-detention [programs] are an effective method of tracking noncitizens released from CBP custody who are awaiting their immigration proceedings," a DHS spokesperson told Axios. "Those who do not report are subject to arrest and potential removal by ICE.”

What they're saying: Progressives and immigration activists have criticized the U.S. use of immigration detention, calling for more humanitarian options.

They've urged the administration to end the use of centers run by for-profit prison companies, in particular, which house the vast majority of detained immigrants.

What to watch: During recent interviews, Mayorkas has hinted at an upcoming memo.

  • He told CBS News "detention reform is a priority of mine," and "the president fulfills his promises."
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