Here's the Real Immigration Problem That Donald Trump Isn't Talking About


Many on the left delighted at the prospect of Donald Trump's presidential run two weeks ago. His unique blend of megalomania and unabashed political ignorance spell obvious trouble for a Republican Party trying to evolve in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. 

But there are already signs that the effects of Trump's madness reach beyond the Republican primary. Consider that the most notable remarks he made during his kickoff speech were about how Mexico is flooding the U.S. with criminals and rapists. Instead of discussing immigration policy for the past few weeks, the media has largely been covering responses from people who apparently have to persuade the American public that Mexico is, in fact, not composed entirely of criminals and rapists. TV networks such as Univision and NBC Universal are also beginning to sever ties with him because they've been forced to reflect on collaborating with someone who thinks that Mexicans are criminals and rapists.

Trump's self-immolation is funny, but it's also a kind of tragedy. Every moment spent having to fend off outrageous statements about the immigrant population is a moment not spent addressing something that truly matters, and immigration is a massive policy domain that merits loads of attention. 

Jim Cole/AP

If we were to have a rational debate about how the U.S. treats its undocumented immigrants, there is an angle on the policy that 2016 candidates are unlikely to touch but should absolutely consider: the "bed mandate."

The bed mandate is a law that requires the U.S. to keep 34,000 immigrants incarcerated every day, regardless of whether such a high number makes any policy sense. The rule represents a perfect storm of xenophobia, the prison-industrial complex and America's exceptional fondness for solving all of its social challenges by throwing someone in a jail cell. And there's no good reason for it to exist. 

The rule: In 2009, the now-deceased West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd slipped a quota into the Homeland Security Department's annual spending bill requiring that Immigration and Customs Enforcement "maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds" at all times. 

The mandate was arbitrary and unprecedented, although it wasn't entirely surprising coming from Byrd, who outgrew his staunch support for the Ku Klux Klan and racial segregation but never seemed to lose his anxiety about undocumented immigrants. According to Robert Morgenthau, the former district attorney of New York County, "No other federal or state agency is required by law to detain a specific number of people without any regard to whether the quota makes sense from a law-enforcement perspective."

The bed mandate fetishizes the idea of incarceration as an indicator of seriousness about immigration enforcement, and discards any consideration about effectiveness. It keeps the number of people who must be kept in detention the same regardless of the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country, which plunged in the aftermath of the recession. It keeps the number the same regardless of trends in whether immigration authorities consider immigrants a threat to the public or likely to avoid the legal system. And it keeps the number the same despite the availability of more cost-effective and less intrusive measures, such as electronic ankle monitors. 

Juan Carlos LLorca/AP

Morgenthau points out that the quota is particularly troubling in light of the fact that plenty of immigration detainees don't end up being deported. Plenty of them end up "languishing for months — sometimes even years — in detention facilities" before they're ever formally considered worthy of conviction. Many end up staying in the U.S. 

According to Bloomberg, nearly two-thirds of detainees are housed in for-profit prisons. The corporations that run these prisons, which have a troubling record of poor management, high levels of violence and prisoner neglect, are flourishing financially and politically active. In 2013, Bloomberg reported that they were funneling money directly to the people in Washington who oversee immigrant incarceration:

Since the 2008 elections, Corrections Corp., Geo and Management and Training Corp., the three biggest prison operators, have donated at least $132,500 to the campaigns of members of congressional subcommittees that appropriate money to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and determine how much is spent on incarceration, according to the data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks campaign spending."

At the moment, it's clear that the main people who stand to lose from dropping the arbitrary quota is the for-profit prison industry. Dropping the bed mandate is only one small piece of the immigration puzzle, but it's low-hanging fruit as a policy objective and a good example to set for a country in the midst of some serious soul-searching on the moral and financial costs of mass incarceration.