End the Immigration Detention Bed Quota


End The Quota Campaign Narrative

The United States has the largest immigrant detention infrastructure in the world and today, the U.S. government locks up and deports more immigrants than ever before. The expansion of the system is in part due to an arbitrary quota from Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants in detention at any given time. This policy, known as the detention bed quota, is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system.


The U.S. immigrant detention system has grown drastically over the last 15 years from less than 10,000 detention beds to 34,000. Beginning with the passage of harsh anti-immigrant laws in 1996 to the post-9/11 backlash, the system has reached an all-time high during the tenure of President Obama.  The expansion of deportation programs that target immigrant communities, such as 287(g), Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), have funneled thousands of people into detention. Private interests also play a role, with private prison corporations lobbying for more enforcement to ensure private prison bed space is filled.

History of the Quota

The immigration detention bed quota requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold a minimum of 34,000 immigrants at any given time. Far from being a longstanding policy, the quota is a recent invention, and its origin is sneaky and undemocratic. It was inserted into the appropriations bill in 2007 with no vetting and zero public comment. The man who created the quota, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, got his political start as a Kleagle for the KKK. Not merely a member of the KKK, Senator Byrd was one of the KKK’s most productive recruiters. As Senator Byrd rose in power within the Democratic Party, he tempered his anti-Black racism to stay in line with his party. His anti-immigrant racism, however, remained unmitigated until his passing in 2010.  

Private Prisons Profit from the Quota

Money appropriated for the bed quota often lines the pockets of the for-profit prison corporations that run nearly half of the beds in immigration jails. The two top private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, have a combined annual revenue of over $3 billion. By trying to force ICE to detain a minimum number of people, the bed quota protects CCA’s and GEO’s profits. These companies lobby hard to protect their bottom line.  In 2013, for example, The GEO Group’s in-house lobbyists spent $1.2 million convincing Congress to act in the corporation’s best interests. The corporation also paid outside lobbyists another $880,000 to echo their desire to keep profits high.  For more info: http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/privateprisons

Impact of the Quota

  • With a guaranteed need for detention “beds” or jail cells, the detention bed quota essentially forces the use of facilities that have poor track records in which innumerable human rights abuses and dozens of deaths have occurred. These facilities have issues ranging from no access to the outdoor space, maggot- and worm-infested food, and wholly inadequate medical and mental health care. For more info: http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/ExposeAndClose
  • What’s more, the cost to maintain this unmanageable system is excessive. In 2012, ICE detained an estimated 478,000 immigrants and the ICE’s current detention budget is just short of $2 billion. During a time of fiscal crisis, it is unacceptable to be spending billions in taxpayer dollars each year to needlessly detain immigrants to fill a quota.
  • Having a quota on how many people must be locked up every day puts a price tag on immigrant lives.  The policy leads to Congress and ICE treating immigrants as numbers filling a quota and products to be bought and sold, not as real people with children and loved ones depending on them.
  • The quota not only impacts the hundreds and thousands of immigrants that go through the detention system each year, but also the families and communities that that have been torn apart due to immigration detention.
  • The quota also incentivizes targeting people for deportation in order to fill jail cells. As politicians tout efforts towards comprehensive immigration reform and relief for those subject to deportation, any meaningful reforms to the immigration system will be impossible with the quota in place.


Immigration detention is unjust, inhumane, and costly. As the immigrant rights movement grows stronger, and as communities in defense of justice and dignity for all immigrants, we have the power to demand that Congress and President Obama eliminate the quota and stop the senseless targeting and incarceration of immigrants.

  • The Congressional Appropriations Committee should take the lead by striking the quota language in the upcoming appropriations bill. And every single member of Congress has the power to get rid of it via the amendment process by voting to eliminate it.
  • President Obama should show his support for immigration reform by removing it from the president’s budget proposal and publicly opposing the quota.



February 2014