By William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel
WASHINGTON — Every day, hundreds of immigrants suspected of living in the country illegally are held behind bars in Florida, part of a controversial crackdown that helps fill a federal detention-bed quota.
Critics call the quota a boondoggle that benefits privately run prisons and spreads anguish through immigrant communities. Defenders say it compels federal officials to enforce immigration law and discourages illegal migration.
Now President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), and Florida immigrant leaders are trying to scale back or eliminate the quota, which requires detaining an average of 34,000 immigrants a day nationwide.
“You have this broken immigration system with a bottleneck of cases, but they are still going after people to detain them and meet this quota, while racking up costs to the taxpayers,” said Melissa McGuire-Maniau, of Winter Park. Her husband was detained in Pompano Beach before being released and becoming a permanent legal resident.
“There are thousands of cases like my husband’s. We know it when we see friends and family who are here today and vanished tomorrow. A mother or husband or friend goes to work but doesn’t make it home, and everyone is worried sick. Then you find out three days later they are in detention.”
She and other activists say the “bed mandate” encourages officials to pick up immigrants who commit minor violations or get flagged while seeking documents.
Removing the quota would mean that authorities “would not go out of their way to detain people for minor offenses or because they look like an immigrant,” said Marlene Dindyal, 49, of Port St. Lucie. She was detained for three years and deported to Trinidad before a federal court ruled that she had not committed a deportable offense and allowed her to return.
The quota began in 2009 when an immigration crackdown led to record numbers of deportations. The crackdown continues, even as Congress considers legislation that would allow millions of foreign residents to remain here legally.
“Many of the people being detained and deported would be eligible for relief if a comprehensive reform bill were to pass,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. “It’s beyond absurd to require that X-number be arrested and detained on a daily basis. It’s a boondoggle for the private prison industry.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spends about $2 billion a year on detention — more than $5 million a day. Some inmates are kept in federal facilities such as the Krome Detention Center in Miami. Some are in county jails. Most are held in privately run prisons such as the Broward Transitional Center, a 700-bed compound in Pompano Beach.
The agency reported last week that 1,526 detainees were being held in Florida facilities as of March 15.
Some detainees from Central Florida are sent to Broward or other facilities, and some are held briefly at county jails. Orange County Jail officials say they housed an average of 98 immigrant detainees per day from July 2012 through June 2013 at a daily cost of $103 each. The county got $2.2 million from federal agencies in fiscal 2013 to pay for it.