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ACLU finds overwhelming majority of immigrant detainees eligible for release following hearing

The federal immigration detention center in Florence, Ariz., one of about 250 such facilities around the country, is shown in this file photo. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union released Monday, December 8, 2014, says more than two-thirds of immigrants detained more than six months in the Los Angeles area were deemed eligible for bond.

Of  more than 1,600 Los Angeles-area immigrants who were detained six months or longer while fighting deportation, more than two-thirds were deemed eligible for release on bond once they had a bond hearing before an immigration judge, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Monday. 

The report follows the aftermath of the class-action lawsuit known as Rodriguez v. Robbins, originally filed in federal court in Los Angeles in 2007. The U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit ultimately ruled in April 2013 that immigrants who have been detained long-term have the right to a bond hearing to determine if they should remain in detention.

The court upheld an earlier order requiring bond hearings for immigrants fighting  a deportation case who have been detained six months or longer.

During an 18-month period between October 2012 and April 2014, there were about 1,680 bond hearings conducted for immigrants in the lawsuit class to determine if someone should be released on bond or another condition; in 1,166 of those - almost 70 percent - an immigration judge found the individual suitable for release, accordingto the report.

ACLU staff attorney Michael Kaufman said the individuals involved in the class action were immigrants that the federal government had deemed ineligible for bond.

"That includes detainees with certain prior immigration violations, asylum seekers, and certain detainees with criminal convictions that are subject to what is known as mandatory detention," Kaufman said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Monday that before deciding to detain someone, they conduct "a thorough review of each individual’s case." The agency issued a a written statement:

"ICE utilizes detention only when legally appropriate and when suitable alternatives are not available, including instances where the person is believed to pose a potential threat to public safety.”

But what it takes to get locked up long-term in a detention facility while fighting or awaiting deportation can be relatively minor, Kaufman said. Examples given in the report include a 58-year-old woman who was convicted in 2010 of illegal re-entry. She was finally granted a hearing and released on bond in July 2013,  few months after the Ninth Circuit's court order.

It costs money to detain an immigrant - more than some Americans earn in a day. The federal government pays $118 per day on average to detain an immigrant, according to ICE; some non-governmental estimates are higher. A good chunk of this money goes to private contractors who operate the bulk of the nation's immigration detention facilities.

The government sets aside funding for a set number of detention beds per day, known as the "bed mandate." According to ICE, there are an average of 32,000 immigrants detained on a daily basis.

Advocates like Kaufman argue that there are cheaper alternatives to detention for people deemed a flight risk - for example, electronic ankle bracelets and other kids of supervision.

"We do know that last year in fiscal year 2014, the government spent $2 billion dollars on detaining immigrants in the U.S.," Kaufman said. "Alternatively, if the government employs what is known as 'alternatives to detention,' that can be as low as $14 and below a day. So those are federal government savings and taxpayer savings that are realized."

For fiscal year 2015, the Obama administration proposed funding fewer mandated detention beds than the previous year, with slightly more money allocated for detention alternatives.