Throughout President Biden’s campaign, he promised to “end prolonged detention and reinvest in case management programs.” Recent data from TRAC demonstrates that the administration is upholding that promise with unprecedented use of Alternative to Detention (ATD) programs. Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs that allow immigrants to enter the U.S. under close supervision throughout their (often) lengthy legal proceedings, as opposed to waiting in costlier, more adverse detention settings.

Supervision can occur through telephonic check-ins, GPS monitoring, facial recognition software, or any combination therein. While ATD programs have been in use since 2004, the expanded use has resulted in growing backlash from anti-immigrant groups who decry them as another form of “catch and release” program. These critics frequently cite unsubstantiated claims of immigrants absconding from check-ins or court appearances and the need to return to formal detention practices. However, these arguments misrepresent the goals of ATD programs and the unique role they play in immigration enforcement.

Deficiencies of formal detention

There are both humanitarian and economic reasons that ICE cannot detain every immigrant for the duration of their legal proceedings. Firstly, detention has devastating impacts on immigrants’ physical and mental health. There is no justifiable reason to subject immigrants to these harms for civil — not criminal — proceedings. Immigration proceedings were never intended to be punitive, and by subjecting people to prolonged detention, we punish many law-abiding immigrants without due process. 

Additionally, ICE’s comprehensive detention system — managed in large part by private companies that are facing multiple lawsuits — is incapable of holding large numbers of immigrants for extended periods required because of judicial inefficiencies and a lack of resources. There are currently over 1.7 million cases pending in immigration courts, and it takes an average of 852 days — 2.5 years — for immigration courts to reach a final decision.  

ATDs are also significantly less expensive. For example, in 2022, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, requested $40 million to supervise 140,000 ATD participants in 2022. That comes to approximately $8.61 daily cost per participant. DHS also requested $1.8 billion to maintain 32,500 beds which cost roughly $151.74 per day per detainee, not including the cost of staffing.

Benefits of expanding ATD programs

Calling ATD programs “alternatives” is a misnomer; they are more an extension of detention. ATD programs allow ICE to expand the population of immigrants that they can supervise at any given time, without the constraints of funding detention space. ICE currently maintains detention capacity for 32,500 individuals. Yet, it monitors almost 240,000 immigrants through ATD programs. Moreover, DHS has repeatedly stated that: 

The ATD program seeks to provide an enhanced monitoring option for those foreign nationals for whom ICE, or an immigration judge, has determined that detention is neither mandated nor appropriate, yet may need a higher level of supervision than that provided by the less restrictive release conditions, such as being released on bond.

ATD programs allow ICE to expand enhanced supervision to a larger population of immigrants who cannot — or should not — be detained in traditional settings.

Anti-immigrant groups who criticize the effectiveness of ATD programs often cite the number of individuals who abscond during custody. But they fail to note how many of those individuals are quickly recaptured by ICE because of the effectiveness of the programs.  

The goal of ATD programs is not to ensure immigrants attend court appearances, but rather to ensure that ICE maintains the information necessary to quickly apprehend immigrants who fail to comply with any of the conditions of their supervision. Using ICE’s performance metrics, an ATD program’s success rate is “not intended to be an indicator for successful removal from the United States or compliance with a court appearance; instead, [ICE] uses this rate to measure its ability to track and monitor aliens when enrolled in ATD.”  

Because ICE does not measure the success of their program based on compliance, they do not publicly report absconding rates for most ATD programs. Critics of ATD programs will frequently point to immigration court decisions made in absentia to create absconding rates for these programs. But, it is essential to note that those numbers apply to any immigrant released from detention, including individuals not under the supervision of an ATD program. The few programs that have been studied for compliance show an incredibly low rate of absconding. For example, the Family Case Management Program, which ran for two years, had an average compliance rate of “99 percent for ICE check-ins and appointments, as well as 100 percent attendance at court hearings.” 

Privacy concerns 

There is cause for concern in the amount of information DHS obtains through these programs, how it’s stored, and how it’s protected. In April 2022, ICE was sued for privacy concerns over their ATD program that uses tracking software, SmartLink, which are often operated by private companies like BI Inc., a subsidiary of the Geo Group. A letter from House lawmakers raised concerns that:

SmartLINK’s privacy policy is comprehensive, and this technology has the capability of surveilling not only the subject but also bystanders—including a potential for unwarranted surveillance of U.S. residents without just cause, their knowledge or their consent.

DHS must address these privacy concerns to ensure that information collected during ATD programs is not used in future enforcement activities nor against private citizens. 


Expanding the use of ATD programs has proven to be an efficient way to supervise immigrants in the U.S. They have demonstrated that the U.S. does not need to rely on these formalized detention facilities to maintain security and compliance with our laws. ATDs programs allow ICE to supervise a larger population of immigrants while also maintaining our economic, humanitarian, and security interests. Instead of relying on unsubstantiated arguments that ATDs are “catch and release” programs with high rates of absconding, we should be taking steps to ensure that information collected during this program is protected and cannot be used beyond the program’s scope.

Photo credit: iStock