Participation in ICE’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Programs Hits New Record High

Rebekah Sperling
3 min readJun 22, 2021

According to data recently released by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 100,363 families and single individuals are currently being monitored through ICE’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs, the largest number of people ever enrolled since its inception.

With a 15% increase in utilization since the presidential election, the Biden Administration has focused on ATD programs in an effort to end prolonged immigration detention. ATD enrollees are surveilled through one or more programs like GPS location monitoring, smartphone applications, telephonic reporting and case management systems.

Since FY2004, Congress has appropriated funds to ICE for an Alternatives to Detention program in order to provide supervised release and enhanced monitoring for noncitizens subject to removal. These specific individuals are not mandated to be in DHS custody, as they are not considered a national security threat, and have been released either on their own recognizance, bond, or parole pending the decision of their removal.

In a recent publication, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stated that the goal of ATD programs were to “increase compliance with release conditions, court appearances and final orders of removal” while also allowing noncitizens to remain in their communities. However, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse has found that more than 80% of all migrants show up for their court hearings, and that number increases to nearly 100% if they have legal representation.

With proven effective strategies such as providing adequate legal representation, the utilization of ATDs within this reasoning of “increasing compliance” supports the notion that the federal government still views migrants as “dangerous outsiders- aliens- who pose an existential threat to the nation itself” and is undoubtedly committed to a security-first philosophy.² Although veiled by the claim of national security, approaches like ATDs, which punish and criminalize immigration, simply reinforce the racist tropes that inaccurately depict the reasons why people migrate.

Theoretically, ATD’s would allow migrants to temporarily be in detention facilities simply for processing and organizing integration plans. With no enforceable standards regarding detention conditions leaving immigrants vulnerable to abuse, as well as the lack of legal representation for detainees, one might conceptualize the legitimacy of this alternative as a more humane or better option than detention. However, in his book Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández argues that this rationale is only possible “after accepting the agency’s premise that everyone deserves confinement.”¹

Although conceptualized as an alternative to traditional forms of detention, critics are quick to note that the increased utilization of such programs rather depict the notion of alternative forms of detention. For example, when ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) was first launched, one of the most utilized ATD programs for ICE, it was not targeted towards individuals in detention who were candidates for release, but rather targeted towards low-risk individuals or persons who were not in detention at all. Instead of reducing immigration detention rates, the overuse of ATD programs like ISAP have alternatively increased the reach of surveillance, resulting in more system-involved immigrants.

In FY2020, the U.S. government spent over $149 million dollars on ATDs, and that number has more than doubled for FY2021, with about $440 million enacted for ATDs. As the number of individuals enrolled in these programs continues to rise, so too will the amount spent each year on ATDs. Although seemingly a hopeful alternative, ATD’s are simply reminders that migrants are constantly dehumanized due to their citizenship status and are not truly free in the United States. Instead, they are bound to carry the traumatizing nature of the border and its harmful effects with them wherever they go.

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Rebekah Sperling

MA in Social Justice. Graduate of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Researching immigration, detention, and human rights. Dog mom to PB&J. Crazy plant lady.