Note: I published this op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch on August 20, 2011.
Government coffers are empty and crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years, yet Congress is considering a vast expansion of the nation’s prison system that is unnecessary, expensive and likely unconstitutional.
A proposal by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, approved by the House Judiciary Committee and its two Ohio members, Reps. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, and Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, would drastically expand the number of immigrants imprisoned pending a deportation decision or awaiting a deportation that may never occur because no other country will take them. Under Smith’s proposal, thousands of additional immigrants would be imprisoned without a judge ever considering whether that is necessary to ensure public safety or prevent a skipped court date. Some of these immigrants’ detention could last a lifetime.
House Speaker John Boehner of West Chester has consistently emphasized the twin principles of fiscal responsibility and fidelity to the Constitution. House Resolution 1932, however, fails both of these tests. Every detained immigrant costs $122 a day, amounting to a bloated current total of $2 billion a year. The Department of Homeland Security already detains approximately 400,000 people annually, largely without judicial oversight.
The bill would greatly increase the number of detained immigrants by including immigrants with no criminal history, such as parents of children who are U.S. citizens, asylum-seekers and torture survivors who have won their cases in immigration court, as well as lawful permanent residents with decades-old minor convictions.
Decades of data show that immigrants commit less crime than native-born individuals, regardless of their age or economic status. When the federal government is cutting unprecedented amounts of spending, it would be the height of folly to enact expensive legislation without any proportionate public-safety benefits.
Many immigrants would be denied the basic protection of a bond hearing before an immigration judge to determine whether they can be lawfully detained. Despite the Supreme Court’s requirement that all preventive detention be limited to specially dangerous individuals and subject to strong procedural protections, this bill would authorize permanent incarceration without an immigration judge’s approval, even to decide whether an individual poses a threat or flight risk.
The only plausible reason that Smith could have written such overbroad, wasteful, and unconstitutional legislation is to misuse the costly immigration detention system to punish noncitizens. The bill entails great harm to countless immigrant communities, including asylum-seekers.
Under the bill, Cubans, who make up one-third of those who cannot be deported because the Cuban government will not take them, and others in similar circumstances could receive a sentence of life imprisonment for an immigration violation. Like just about every segment of our society, mixed-status immigrant families, which include many U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, have been battered by the recession. For this bill to split up these families through incarceration, wresting them away from child care, work and other responsibilities, is misguided and inhumane public policy.
Chabot and Jordan mistakenly approved the bill in the House Judiciary Committee. Boehner must stay true to his principles of fiscal responsibility and respect for the Constitution by ensuring that this misguided bill goes no further.