PHOENIX -- A recent decision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transfer several hundred immigrants from detention to more cost-effective forms of supervision fueled a public outcry. The stated reason for those releases was looming sequester cuts.
In recent months, however, ICE has quietly shifted to using a new instrument to make custody decisions.
The new tool is called the Risk Classification Assessment, and it is supposed be fully implemented nationwide this year.
The agency has released limited information about the instrument.
Those who have knowledge of the tool say it is an automated, computerized system developed by a criminal justice expert to guide ICE officers. It determines whether an immigrant facing deportation should be locked up for the duration of those court proceedings, or should be let out on bond, or on a supervision program, like an ankle bracelet.
“The idea behind the risk assessment is to ensure that ICE is only detaining those individuals that need to be detained,” said Julie Myers Wood, a consultant for private security and monitoring companies, and a former assistant secretary of ICE from 2006-2008.
She said while it is appropriate to release certain immigrants under the right circumstances, others do need to be detained — either because they pose a risk to the public, because they wouldn’t show up to their immigration hearings or leave the country if ordered deported, or because federal law requires they are detained due to certain crimes in their past.
The new assessment is supposed to determine the public safety risk or flight risk of any given immigrant in deportation proceedings.
ICE began nationwide implementation of the tool in July 2012 with plans to finish in 2013, but the agency declined to comment about whether it is complete yet. A spokeswoman in Phoenix confirmed it is currently in use in Arizona.
Once the national rollout is complete, ICE will have a uniform system for deciding who to hold in detention. In the past, immigrant rights advocates have complained of arbitrary or subjective decisions made by local ICE offices.
Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. said the new tool ensures taxpayer money is used responsibly. ICE’s current detention budget is $2 billion.
“It may very well show that we don’t need all those detention beds and we can enforce immigration laws much more economically by using alternatives to detention,” Brané said.
Congress has allocated funding for 34,000 ICE detention beds, each at a cost of well over $100 a night. Alternatives to detention, on the other hand, cost 10 percent of that.
The Department of Homeland Security requested funding for fewer beds — 32,800 — in its budget for fiscal year 2013.
Reducing the use of detention beds in favor of less restrictive options may not be popular across the board, given the outcry over ICE’s sequester-related releases.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called that move last week a return "to the kind of catch-and-release procedures that have long made a mockery of our country’s immigration system" in a statement.
Several politicians, including Texas Governor Rick Perry and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, have called on ICE to provide more information about the individuals released due to federal budget cuts.