Humane Enforcement

LIRS advocates for the humane enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and the reform of the U.S. immigration detention system. Migrants apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security are often placed into immigration detention, where they are held in jails or jail-like settings until they win their cases or are deported to their countries of origin.

The number of migrants detained by the government has skyrocketed over the past years. In fiscal year 1996, the government had a daily detention capacity of 8,279 beds. In 2012, that number increased to 34,000. Any non-citizens, including green card holders, asylum-seekers, trafficking victims, and torture survivors, are at risk of detention if federal officials believe they should be returned to their countries of origin.

Did You Know?

  • U.S. taxpayers foot the cost of adult detention at a daily cost of $123.54 per person, per day
  • In FY 2012, the government budgeted $2.75 billion for the detention and removal of immigrants, a $184 million increase over the FY 2011 budget
  • Taxpayers could save more than $1.6 billion a year if only the most dangerous individuals were detained and cost-effective alternatives to detention were utilized for the rest of the detainee population

International human rights principles dictate physical detention should be used as a last resort. However, the current system uses a one-size-fits-all approach, presuming nearly all migrants require detention. Serious issues with the current system include the following:

  • Guidelines that could prioritize apprehension of serious criminals, such as prosecutorial discretion, are used ineffectively, resulting in the detention and deportation of thousands of immigrants for minor offenses.
  • Asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants are too-often detained for long periods of time. Data from LIRS’s Asylum and Immigration Network show that asylum seekers and victims of torture remain in immigration detention for an average of 18 months.
  • Families with young children are detained. In some cases, parents of U.S. citizen children are detained and separated from their children and other relatives.
  • When migrants are detained, geographic and financial barriers make it difficult for them to obtain counsel and they have no rights to a government-funded attorney. The Stanford Law Review found that 46% of asylum-seekers with an attorney won their asylum cases, while only 16% of those without an attorney were granted asylum.

LIRS’s Position

LIRS seeks to reform U.S. immigration detention policy to protect vulnerable migrants and to ensure the fair treatment of all migrants who come into contact with federal immigration officials. The U.S. government should explore and expand community support programs and alternatives to detention. Migrants who are not risks for flight or to the public safety should be released from detention into local community programs that would provide them with housing, legal and social services, and ensure their appearance at immigration court proceedings.


The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744)
S. 744, the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill includes provisions to reform the United States’s immigration enforcement practices. After considering many amendments to the bill, including amendments related to immigration enforcement, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in a bipartisan vote on May 21. The bill now heads to further debate and amendments on the Senate floor beginning in early June. Read LIRS’s statement opposing amendments to widen indefinite detention and take action for humane enforcement in immigration reform!

Prosecutorial Discretion

Prosecutorial discretion is the authority of a law enforcement agency to decide how to enforce the law on a case-by-case basis given its priorities. Federal immigration agencies can exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis in cases of migrants who are not considered high priority for removal, including migrants who have been in the country since childhood, have strong community ties, are veterans or relatives of persons in the armed services, are caregivers, have serious health issues, are victims of crime, or otherwise have a strong basis for remaining in the United States. To learn more about this process, please see LIRS’s timeline of prosecutorial discretion decision points.

LIRS Resources

How You Can Help

  • Join the Stand for Welcome campaign to stay updated on our detention advocacy.
  • Visit the Action Center to support humane enforcement and alternatives to detention.