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GAO Finds Room for Improvement in ICE’s Growing Alternatives to Detention Program

The number of ATD participants has risen further since GAO's study, to a high of 266,439 families and single individuals as of June 3, 2022.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses the Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program as a way to monitor individuals it releases into the community. New analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of ICE contractor data found that the number of individuals enrolled in the ATD program more than doubled from approximately 53,000 in 2015 to 111,000 in 2020. 

ICE has wide discretion to detain or release individuals of foreign nationality awaiting resolution of their immigration court proceedings, except for individuals subject to mandatory detention. The ATD program, which ICE administers through a $2.2 billion contract, uses electronic monitoring and case management to help ensure that individuals enrolled comply with release conditions, such as appearing at immigration court hearings. 

As well as finding that the number of individuals enrolled in the program more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, GAO also discovered that during this period, ICE unenrolled most participants before their immigration proceedings concluded. ICE placed about half of unenrolled participants on monitoring outside of the ATD program and about a quarter absconded (i.e. fled their address and could not be located). GAO found that ICE has not completely presented information on participants who abscond from the program. For example, ICE does not include all relevant participants when calculating absconsion rates. 

ICE collects data on the ATD program, such as whether participants attend their scheduled court hearings. ICE also developed a performance goal for fiscal year 2022, but GAO said ICE does not assess program performance for all core program activities and outcomes, such as referrals for community services. 

GAO noted that ICE conducts some oversight of the contractor, BI Incorporated, that helps to implement the ATD program nationwide. For example, ICE conducts weekly audits intended to ensure that ATD participants receive the assigned level of supervision and services. However, the watchdog also reported that ICE does not fully assess the contractor against the standards for performance established in the contract, nor follow-up and document whether the contractor resolves issues it identifies. 

The program is not without its critics, with some immigrant advocacy groups calling for less intrusion and surveillance. But ATD is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. As part of his presidential campaign, President Biden pledged to end prolonged detention and reinvest in case management programs. A promise he is upholding, making GAO’s findings all the more relevant. According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, the number of ATD participants has risen further, to a high of 266,439 families and single individuals as of June 3, 2022. TRAC notes that the average days spent in the program are currently at 373.5 and that Harlingen’s area office has the highest number of participants, followed by San Antonio, Phoenix, El Paso and San Francisco.

With this increase in mind, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has concurred with GAO’s recommendations to improve implementation, assessment, and oversight of the ATD program and its $2.2 billion contract, including that ICE establish performance goals that cover core program activities, improve external reporting of absconsion information, collect information needed to assess the contractor’s performance against standards, and ensure the contractor addresses all audit findings. DHS stated that it expects ICE to have completed work to meet all the recommendations by the end of May 2023, with some of the work being actioned by October 2022.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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