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The Unnecessary Expense of Immigrant Detention

by Published on
"Saving the Dragan Family" on
The Dragan Family

Over the past decade and a half, the federal government has created a cash cow for private prison companies by detaining record numbers of undocumented immigrants in for-profit lockups. In 2009, Congress even imposed a quota on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), obliging the agency to detain an average of 34,000 immigrants per night across all of its facilities. At an average cost of $164 per day per detainee, the math works out quite well for private prison companies such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, which post billions in annual revenue. Taxpayers should be infuriated. Proven, common-sense alternatives to detention, including monitoring and case management, are available at a savings of more than $1 billion a year.

To fulfill the so-called bed mandates, detention centers are often populated with low-level detainees who are neither threats to security nor flight risks. Texas in general, and ICE’s San Antonio field office in particular, house among the highest number of low-level detainees in the country.

Consider 29-year-old Andrei Dragan. Dragan has been incarcerated at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, about an hour southwest of San Antonio, since May 23. Dragan, who has lived in the U.S. legally off and on since he was 5, lost his permanent residency due to a drug offense in 2010.

But he doesn’t need to be locked up. He served his sentence and dutifully obeyed his terms of probation.

Dragan and his lawyer believe he’s a United States citizen because his mother became a naturalized citizen when he was a juvenile. “He is an American as much as a Romanian,” his wife writes on a website devoted to Dragan’s release.

Dragan was employed as a Linux administrator in Manor and is the sole breadwinner for his wife and two young children, with a third baby on the way. Though his wife’s pregnancy has been diagnosed as high-risk and his employer sent a character reference to the court on his behalf, Dragan remains trapped, like tens of thousands of others, inside a slow-moving immigration system.

Several immigration attorneys I spoke with confirmed that STDC, which houses an average of 1,500 detainees at a time, is understaffed, and detainees can’t schedule legal appointments in timely fashion. Until recently, GEO Group, the private company that runs STDC, set aside only three rooms at the facility for attorneys to meet with their clients. After much complaining from attorneys, the prison transformed a broom closet into a fourth meeting room with limited access. Lawyers typically wait one to two hours to see their clients, but some tell me they’ve waited as long as eight hours.

“It’s difficult to recruit pro bono attorneys to do this work,” says Benicio Diaz, of American Gateways, an Austin-based nonprofit provider of legal services.

There also aren’t enough judges for every detention facility, so many detainees participate in their legal proceedings on closed-circuit television. Often attorneys have to decide whether to be with their client or with the judge.

“God forbid your client doesn’t speak English,” Diaz adds. “They have to phone in a translator. You’re listening to a translator via telephone, watching a judge on television.”

In an attempt to expedite his release, Dragan has volunteered to leave the country, but the government can sometimes take as long as six months to process a detainee out of the country—a far cry from the popular image of Mexican immigrants swiftly booted back across the river. To add to that, a 2009 Associated Press study of ICE data showed that of the 32,000 people detained on a given day, 950 had been there over six months and more than 400 had been there over a year.   

It’s hard to see who benefits from this inhumane and absurd system, other than private prison companies and their enablers in Congress. Expanding successful, low-cost alternatives to detention programs doesn’t just make good fiscal sense, it’s the right thing to do.

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Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.

  • 1bimbo

    instead of paying for attorneys, the illegals come to america, set up welfare, send half their money back to other people in their countries to help them pay the coyotes for their illegal passage as well.. the USA human- trafficker-in-chief helps them the rest of the way by providing them bus tickets and plane rides to set them up with strangers they claim to be ‘family’ in america.. it’s a deadly cycle that’s feeding our immigration debacle.. the MSM is ignoring it, meanwhile a health and safety crisis is unfolding before our very eyes.. you work for the cartels now

    • Larry Hall

      You poor, poor, confused individual…The law you are decrying is the handiwork of your savior George W. Bush. President Obama’s hands are tied. He’s required to follow immigration law. Which in this case is the result of George W. Bush’s incompetence.

      Get your facts straight and quit making yourself look stupider than you already are.

      • 1bimbo

        liar.. obama told the US border control to stand down.. 90% of them are now redcross workers.. your scorched earth politics president not only caused this mess, he promulgates it.. history will not look fondly on obama.. democrats are finished

        • Larry Hall


          I asked you to check your confused facts, and you go full on bat-crap crazy. You take it to the next level. No wonder you right-wing loons are slipping down the toilet so quickly. You just can’t stop yourselves, can you?

          • 1bimbo

            Gabe Pacheco

          • 1bimbo

            Hector Garza

          • 1bimbo

            steven mcgraw

        • Larry Hall

          Let’s make this fun. Show your sources for your turbo-loon conspiracy claims. Of course I’m assuming you know what the word source means here. That’s taking a leap of faith. If you can stop gnawing your knuckles long enough to look that up, we’d all appreciate a break from seriousness, A brief moment for levity. 😉

    • Aaron Jackson

      You don’t think someone married to an US Citizen, with US citizen kids, with a job, paying US taxes, should be allowed in the US?

      • 1bimbo

        those who apply for citizenship, yes.. that family has been sent to the back of the line(actually they’ve been sent out of the room) because of the current border surge.. no amount of legal aid will help their situation.. the system is clogged, overwhelmed, broken& on hold for them now..

        • Angela Maria Dragan

          It is true, the Immigration system is overwhelmed. I have learned personally though that the immigration system does as it pleases and it not held accountable for their actions. The system has forced us from being able to pay our bills, buy food, and have our private medical insurance since I am 8 months pregnant in a high risk pregnancy, all things we were able to do for years while my husband was free and worked. Our system hurts American citizens as much they try to say they are helping America, by forcing families to go on public assistance programs.

  • Angela Maria Dragan

    Hello, this article features my family. In the blink of an eye the United States Immigration System has taken everything away from my family. We are American citizens and we are losing everything. This article just phases the surface. Please help our family.

  • Denise Quiros Nobs

    You should know, Cindy – you are the communications Director for Southwest Key, the biggest milker of the cow in Texas.