Time for the Media to Help Change the Xenophobic Border Narrative: Journalists Might Start with Looking at Alternative Detention Policies

Laura Peters, Maryland Legislative Coordinator

Many detention policies for migrants and asylum seekers are to be used only as a “last resort” and many are in contravention of well-settled human rights law and the UNHCR Guidelines. It is time to ask why detention is being used as a “first resort” by the US government as a response to people seeking protection at the border. Are detention policies any more effective? Any less expensive? The answer is no. The UNHCR sets out several alternatives to detention, such as reporting requirements, the use of caseworkers to maintain communication with the refugees or the use of courts to issue bonds or specify the refugee resides in a designated address or a non-governmental organization such as a church. According to a UNCHR survey, almost “any alternative measure will prove cheaper than detention.”

For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated in its Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal year (FY) 2018 that it costs the taxpayers $133.99 per day to hold an adult immigrant in detention and $319.37 for an individual in family detention. In FY 2018, DHS estimated that the average cost per alternative to detention (ATD) participant would be $4.50 per day. Those costs may have been achieved because of donated time provided by lawyers, but even when the costs for professionals’ time is included, the cost of alternatives can be less than 7 percent of that of detention. Although participants may be enrolled on ATD for a longer period of time due to court delays when they are not detained, GAO found that an individual would have had to be on ATD for 1,229 days before time on ATD and time in detention cost the same amount.

Detention alternatives are also highly effective. The US government has previously found that people participating in its alternative-to-detention programs appeared at their immigration hearings in 99.6 percent of cases. In 2017, the Trump administration terminated the Family Case Management Program, even though it was 99-percent effective in ensuring that asylum-seeking parents and their children appeared at their immigration court hearings — by helping them to find legal representation, guiding them through the court system, and connecting them with other community resources.

All of this discussion is, of course, relevant in terms of the debate about the southern border where the President’s talk about the need to build a 2,000-mile wall has drowned out a more important debate about how to seriously address the number of individuals (particularly children and families) arriving at the southern border requesting asylum. These asylum seekers are increasingly being absorbed into a fear narrative that paints these people — many of whom are victims of violence and persecution — as criminals and even terrorists.

We must ask the media to reframe the narrative as a humanitarian emergency caused by central American states’ economies imploding while violence by gangs in these countries increases. We must ask them to continue to tell the truth about the inhumanity of detention centers where men and women who have often been through trauma and experienced torture and violence are exposed to more inhumane suffering.