Holding undocumented inmates for immigration officials costs Bell County hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, with $191,000 spent so far in 2014, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, commonly referred to as an “immigration hold,” require local jail or other law enforcement to keep an individual for an additional 48 hours after their release date. The holds allow immigration officials time to decide if they want to take an individual into federal custody and begin deportation proceedings.
Bell County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Donnie Adams said “ICE holds” apply to inmates who already had their local charges addressed by the court system and are about to be released from jail.
“After we get through with them, we notify ICE that they are ready for release,” Adams said. “If they want the hold, they get 48 hours to pick them up.”
Local agencies like the Bell County Jail are not reimbursed for the cost of housing undocumented inmates for those additional days, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. In 2013, ICE detainers cost Bell County an estimated $415,166. According to data provided by the Texas Tribune, Bell County Jail held 1,200 inmates under ICE detainers for 21,136 days between October 2011 and May 2014, spending $1.2 million.
While the majority of undocumented inmates in Bell County Jail are from Mexico, Adams said they have had inmates from “just about everywhere.”
It costs $67.35 per day to house an inmate in the jail.
“We don’t treat (undocumented inmates) any different than anybody else,” Adams said.
While ICE continues to use detainers in Texas and throughout the country, the practice raises concerns among lawyers like Vinesh Patel.
Patel, an immigration lawyer for a Dallas-based firm, said lack of communication between ICE and county jails, and a lack of understanding by judges can cause undocumented individuals to get stuck in jail for lengthy periods of time while awaiting trial.
“Sometimes a judge will see an immigration hold and decide not to set bond, even for someone accused of a minor crime,” Patel said.
“People with minor offenses are given no bond at the state court level, and they get stuck that way.”
While debate continues, the data show a decline in the use of detainers. According to the Texas Tribune, the number of immigrants housed in Bell County Jail on federal detainers decreased 24.33 percent between 2012 and 2013, while the cost of housing immigrants on federal detainers decreased 20.73 percent.
The same data showed annual costs were about $77 million statewide, or $6.4 million less than in 2012.
Even though the cost to house inmates is dropping, the heated back-and-forth about immigration holds is unlikely to die down.
Billy Bryan, a former Bell County Jail administrator and current member of the Texas Jail Association, said the cost isn’t what’s keeping the issue alive.
“I haven’t seen the issue as a cost factor, but more of a political factor,” he said.