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Legal Eagle: Increased Immigrant Detention Leads to ‘Perverse Incentive’ for Private Prisons

“The more you detain immigrants, the more you throw them in jail, the higher the profit margin.”

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While Idaho and the nation anxiously awaited a ruling on the future of Arizona's controversial immigration law, better known as Arizona Senate Bill 1070, one of the American Civil Liberties Union's top legal defenders argued that the Southwestern border state's strict crackdown on undocumented workers is only the beginning of a growing legal tangle.

Tanaz Moghadam, who was part of the ACLU litigation team challenging SB 1070, pointed to skyrocketing taxpayer expense and courtroom logjams associated with new anti-immigration laws.

"The costs of litigation are pretty remarkable," Moghadam said in a June 13 Boise address hosted by the ACLU of Idaho. "We certainly believe these laws need to be litigated and rights need to be vindicated. Is it worth the taxpayers' money to have to defend it?"

The Department of Homeland Security reported to Congress that its immigration detainment system, operated by its Division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would cost taxpayers more that $2 billion in 2012, a $254 million increase from 2010. With an estimated 33,000 people in more than 250 U.S. facilities on any given night, DHS said the cost per day of immigrant detainment is nearly $5.5 million.

"The rate of immigration detention is through the roof," Moghadam said. "Since the 1990s, it has gone up 15-fold, so that every given year, something like 400,000 people are held just for immigration--not criminal just for immigration purposes to see if they are deportable or not."

Moghadam pointed to the increased number of detained immigrants sent to privatized prisons in the United States as an additional challenge. In fact, she referred to the Correction Corporation of America, which operates the controversial Idaho Correctional Center, part of the Idaho Department of Correction's prison campus, south of Boise. The ICC came under intense scrutiny following allegations of high levels of inmate violence. Records obtained by the Associated Press showed that between September 2007 and September 2008, ICC had more inmate-on-inmate assaults than all other Idaho prisons combined.

"The more you detain immigrants, the more you throw them in jail, the higher the profit margin," said Moghadam. "And that's a really disturbing, really perverse incentive that gets so little attention and that I think would really frustrate and anger a lot of Americans."

Moghadam said immigrants were "easily vilified when things are down and there is a recession, as there is now."

"There is a lot of scapegoating going on," she said. "And I don't think it is a coincidence that as the economy here has turned, it really correlated with the rise of these laws."

Moghadam's appearance was the first in a series of summer Law and Liberty lectures sponsored by the ACLU of Idaho. Capital punishment and women's reproductive rights are on the docket for July and August events.

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