Meanwhile, my prediction that immigration detention would drive prison expansion in the near term has come true, adding another category of detention facilities that require more guards when no one can find any. It's hard to see how these long-term trends can co-exist viably. Where does it all end?
At the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Jay Root had this story Sunday ("Border patrol employs zero tolerance approach in Del Rio," May 25 ) detailing outcomes from ending the so-called "catch and release" policy that allowed undocumented immigrants out of detention while awaiting a detention hearing. The result has been:
an almost insatiable demand for jail space.By comparison, the state of Texas spends about $40 per day to house state prisoners, and in many county jails the cost is less than that. So the expansion of immigration detention facilities puts tremendous financial pressure on counties and the state to increase guard pay to keep enough warm bodies in C.O. slots. For the most part, they're not in a position to do that.
Eight years ago, the Val Verde County Jail had 180 beds. This year, after a second 600-bed expansion, the maximum-security jail has room for 1,425 prisoners, an increase of almost 700 percent. While the state prisoner population in Val Verde has remained about 70 to 80 a day on average, the number serving time for federal immigration and drug offenses has skyrocketed, officials say.
"If it wasn't for federal prisoners, we wouldn't need any of this. It just wouldn't be necessary," Jernigan said while giving a tour of the huge facility he oversees in Del Rio. "This is a federal court city, and there's a need to house federal prisoners here."
Two prisons specializing in federal detainees are going up along the Texas-Mexico border southeast of here -- a 654-bed unit in Eagle Pass and a 1,500-bed jail nearing completion in Laredo. Like the Val Verde lockup, these facilities are run by the Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut, which last year posted its best financial results ever, the company said.
Even the largest jail for illegal immigrants, the Willacy County Jail, is too small to accommodate federal demands. Located in Raymondville -- nicknamed "Prisonville" -- it is expanding capacity from 2,000 to 3,000 beds this year, officials say.
The detention boom hasn't been done on the cheap.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it costs $88 a day to house a prisoner in privately run jails.
Meanwhile, I swear I see a different set of arguments and logic used every time somebody tries to claim that border enforcement is "working." Here's Root's effort:
In 2007, 22,920 people were caught in the Del Rio sector, many of whom passed through the Val Verde jail. In 1974, the earliest year-end figures available, almost twice that many -- 44,806 --were caught. Authorities believe that fewer captures mean fewer illegal crossings.Of course, those data don't tell us there were "fewer illegal crossings." They only mean that for all the extra spending, there were fewer detentions. It could be true that the number of crossings overall went down - in fact that's almost certainly the case since the housing market in Texas and elsewhere crashed overnight last year and many jobs drawing immigrants were in construction. (Root also reports that overall arrests last year were down all along the border, though not as much as in the Del Rio sector.)
However, simply using the metric of how many ICE caught to tell if they're succeeding amounts to a self fulfilling prophecy. There's little hard evidence I can see that expanded enforcement is responsible for the decline. Indeed, if the number of detentions had increased, I'm pretty sure that would have also been spun as a success.
In any event, my question for the moment isn't whether the policy works, but is it sustainable?
Will overcrowded county jails be forced to send local inmates out of county to make room for increased immigration holds? Harris County already must send hundreds of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana, yet their Sheriff is plowing forward to expand detention of immigrant in the jail.
Further, will high per-inmate rates for immigration prisoners indirectly raise costs for locals by putting pressure on guard pay or causing guards to leave public employ to work for rapidly expanding private facilities?
Some counties are even proposing speculative jail building hoping to lease bed space to ICE, apparently banking on the idea that immigrant detention will remain high for the next 20 years or so while they pay off public bonds. With all remaining presidential candidates favoring comprehensive immigration reform, that's probably a bad assumption. Talk about sowing the seeds of your own destruction!
Texas prisons and largest jails already can't hire enough guards to function safely at full capacity. If immigration detention continues to expand at double digit rates, we may soon reach a tipping point regarding cost and safety, if we haven't already, that forces prison builders to put on the brakes.
RELATED: From the Austin Statesman, "More illegal immigrants are being charged criminally in Austin," May 28.
SEE ALSO: If you didn't see Stephen Colbert's suggestions for prison expansion options, check it out here via Texas Prison Bidness: