The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 5, 2013

Federal legislation could steer many illegal immigrants away from detention

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The hundreds of illegal immigrants locked up in the North Georgia Detention Center wear one of three colors, which instantly convey something about their past.

Men and women who have committed no serious offenses other than entering the country illegally may wear deep blue. Those convicted of crimes such as theft or drug-dealing may wear flame orange. Those guilty of violent crimes such as murder or rape wear blood red.

Regardless of uniform color, each detainee costs taxpayers — an average of $164 a day, by one informed estimate.

That price tag is one reason proponents of immigration reform support the sweeping bill now pending in the U.S. Senate. Provisions buried deep in the 844-page measure would allow more nonviolent immigrants to remain in their communities while the government attempts to deport them.

Although critics say without detention, illegal immigrants could flee.

Those sections have received less attention than the centerpiece of Senate Bill 744 — a route to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. That provision alone could dramatically cut the number of immigrants being held behind bars.

To understand the full impact of the bill, which is expected to get a Senate vote this month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed it in detail.

The legislation proposes alternatives to incarceration for illegal immigrants not deemed to be dangerous. Such alternatives might include supervised release, routine check-ins with immigration authorities and electronic monitoring. The bill would permit the government to contract with nongovernmental organizations that could screen and supervise illegal immigrants in their communities. In order to lock them up, it would be up to the government to show that they posed a flight risk or a threat to public safety.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are held behind bars nationwide each year; it’s not clear how many of them the proposed changes would affect. Georgia has three privately run detention centers, located in Gainesville, Lumpkin and Ocilla. In all, there are more than 3,000 beds available for immigrant detainees in Georgia, including 188 at the Atlanta City Detention Center.

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