The Annual Death Rate in Immigration Detention Rose in 2017 and Fell in 2018

Since the Trump Administration announced a punitive immigration detention policy in 2018 that separated families, reports have surfaced of immigrants who have died while in detention or shortly after being released to medical facilities for treatment.  It’s understandable why news consumers and suppliers are interested in deaths in detention facilities given the Trump Administration’s actions on this issue, but the distinct impression from reading all of these stories is that being detained is more dangerous than ever. 

To check whether this was true or if this impression was just an artifact of cognitive bias, I decided to estimate the annual death rate in immigration detention in the United States.  There are two primary pieces of data required to calculate this rate: The number of people in detention each year and the number of deaths.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs all of the detention facilities and they provide the number of deaths and admissionsThe American Immigration Law Association provides some more recent numbers of deaths in detention, but I only include those that ICE also counts.  The admissions into ICE detention facilities variable is the proper one to use as it is closer to the number of unique individuals who were present in a detention facility in each year.  The numbers for both variables run through the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018.

The FY2018 death rate in ICE immigration detention was 2.3 per 100,000 detainees, a 39 percent drop relative to the rate for FY2017.  That’s good news, but the improvement in FY2018 follows on a deterioration in FY2017 from FY2016.  In FY2017, the death rate per 100,000 detainees increased by 31 percent relative to FY2016.  In other words, the chance of dying in detention rose in FY2017 – but the death rate began to rise in FY2015 from a low point of 1.4 per 100,000 in FY2014 in an uninterrupted trend.  The largest percentage increases during this time was a 60 percent jump from FY2014 to FY2015.  The Trump Administration inherited an ICE detention system where the death rate was rising, presided over a year when the death rate continued to rise, and then saw it fall by 32 percent in FY2018.  

Table 1: Deaths per 100,000 Detainees, By Year

Figure 1 shows the total number of ICE detentions and the total number of deaths in custody.  The absolute number and rates of death in ICE detention were highest during the George W. Bush administration at 6.4 per 100,000 per year.  Those death rates fell rapidly from 2004, the first full year when ICE was in operation, from 11.9 per 100,000 detainees to 2.9 per 100,000 detainees in 2008.  The death rate rose 26 percent during the first year of the Obama Administration in 2009, then started falling again the next year with an average annual death rate of 2.3 per 100,000 detainees during his entire presidency.  We only have data for two years of the Trump administration where the annual death rate is 2.9 percent – almost identical to that of the first two years of the Obama Administration. 

Copy: Table 1: Deaths per 100,000 Detainees, By Year

This excellent study of death rates in ICE detention gives three reasons for why death rates fell so much during the Bush years and remained low thereafter.  The first is that the length of time that immigrants spent in detention fell, which means there was less opportunity for each individual to die even though more were in detention.  The second was that ICE increasingly relied on Secure Communities and local law enforcement to first arrest illegal immigrants and then transfer them to ICE.  Local law enforcement agencies typically provided any healthcare that the immigrants needed before being transferred to ICE or, tragically, many of them died in local law enforcement custody.  The third is that ICE medical policies and practices improved during this time. 

Although it may seem like there is a major spike in deaths in immigration detention, and the FY2019 could show that (although that is extremely unlikely), that is simply not true.  Although there was an increase in death rates in FY2017, they were down considerably in FY2018 and show all indication of falling further in FY2019.

Justin Amash and His Opponents

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is the most libertarian member of Congress. His view of his role in Congress is deeply rooted in his commitment to the Constitution. Amash told the New York Times in 2011, “I follow a set of principles, I follow the Constitution. And that’s what I base my votes on. Limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty.”

Amash has a remarkable knack for drawing opponents who are ignorant or dismissive of the Constitution. His 2014 primary opponent, Brian Ellis, strikingly dismissed Amash’s principled, constitutional stand: “He’s got his explanations for why he’s voted, but I don’t really care. I’m a businessman, I look at the bottom line. If something is unconstitutional, we have a court system that looks at that.” 

Most members of Congress vote for unconstitutional bills. Few of them make it an explicit campaign promise.

And now, just today, one of his pro-Trump challengers in next year’s primary, Tom Norton, “passed out press releases calling on the House to expel Amash for allegedly failing to represent constituents in a district that backed Trump.”

Needless to say, Congress does not and would not expel a member for such a reason. Not that it matters, in 2016 Amash carried his district by 22 points while Trump had a 9-point margin.

Meanwhile, here’s an article on Amash’s differences with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on what libertarians should think about the behavior described in the Mueller Report.  

Market-Based Visas: Problems, Criticisms, and Solutions

Steven Kopits of Princeton Energy Advisors wrote a few criticisms of our proposal to sell Gold Cards through a market-based program that I’ve called an immigration tariff.  An immigration tariff is an attempt, based largely on Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker’s idea to sell visas, to create a market-based visa that accounts for many of the most trenchant criticisms of liberalized immigration  The idea is simply to create a new visa called a Gold Card without numerical quotas or caps.  The Gold Card would supply permanent legal residency and work permission, but cannot be used to naturalize –like a green card lite.  The government would then sell those Gold Cards for a price set with three goals in mind.  Those goals are to make sure that the Gold Card is a net-fiscal windfall for the federal government, to outcompete human smugglers, and to create a more flexible immigration system that responds to the U.S. market demands. 

The prices that I’ve recommended for the Gold Card are designed to more than offset the worst-case scenarios as outlined by the National Academy of Sciences fiscal cost projections by age of entry and education level for individual immigrants.  This is an earnest and direct answer to a forceful conservative criticism of immigration based on its supposedly negative fiscal effect.  Although I dispute the notion that immigrants are a net fiscal drain, that criticism is still politically popular and must be addressed in any final policy.  

In most cases the prices for Gold Cards would compete favorably with human smugglers and drive most illegal immigrants and many asylum-seekers into the Gold Card market.  A legal Gold Card visa guarantees legal work and residency, so long as the migrant doesn’t commit a deportable offense, while smuggling is an expensive and risky chance at potentially working illegally in the United States with the ever-present risk of deportation and abuse in the black market.  Furthermore, the prices charged by human smugglers are not so much lower than Gold Cards in my mock tariff schedule.    Lastly, an immigration tariff is the most market-friendly visa that still offers some protections for the U.S. labor market, the last point being politically necessary.

Kopits also combines some criticisms of Cato’s immigration tariff with that of the IDEAL immigration plan that charges $2500 a year for a work permit.  The IDEAL plan has a lot of merit and it’s worth examining in detail, but I’m going to focus on the points that Kopits raises about Cato’s immigration tariff proposal here.  I take Kopits’ criticisms seriously because he is a proponent of creating a market-based visa system for the United States, he has written thoughtfully on this and other immigration issues, and he’s a smart and respectable individual.  Kopits’ criticisms are in quotes below and my responses follow.


The fee is too low and the market is too big

Both the Cato and Ideal fees are too low, particularly as they offer permanent residency in some form.  From the conservative perspective, the idea is to limit or reduce the number of immigrants and reduce tenure of migrants in the US.  A low fee will not only encourage immigration, it will crush the system.”

The Gold Card is a form of specially designed permanent residency that is not a pathway to citizenship.  The Gold Card does not preclude its holder from earning a green card through one of the existing legal channels and eventually naturalizing that way, but it does not provide a special path toward citizenship.  The non-immigrant feature of the Gold Card is intended to cater to conservative worries that Gold Card purchasers will all naturalize and vote against them, just like they fear new immigrants and those legalized in an amnesty for illegal immigrants will vote against them.  Anecdotally, this fear is an important reason why many Republicans and conservatives are skeptical of increasing legal immigration.  I think their fear has all of the hallmarks of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably come true to some extent because of Republican positions on the issue of immigration, so the Gold Card is designed to deal with that.

“Consider Cato’s $15,000 fee for young adults without high school educations.  How big is the potential market?  If we apply the offer to 133 low income countries globally – to Latin America, East and South Asia and Africa – then we are speaking of a gross population of 6.5 bn.  If just 0.1% decided to take up the offer … well, it would be game over in a matter of days.”


U.K.’s “Unexplained Wealth Orders” Give the State Too Much Power

I’ve got a piece in the Washington Examiner this morning on a remarkable new law enforcement tool in Britain:

It’s like, “Your papers, please,” but for things you own.

Authorities in Britain have begun trying out a new police power called unexplained wealth orders under a law that took effect last year. The police go to a court and say you’re living way above any known legitimate income. The judge then signs an order compelling you to show that your possessions (whether a house, fancy car, or jewelry) have been obtained honestly and not with dirty money. In the meantime, the boat or artwork or other assets get frozen, and you can’t sell them until you’ve shown you obtained them innocently.

The kicker: The burden of proof falls on you, not the government. If you don’t prove the funds were clean, Her Majesty may be presumed entitled to keep the goodies….

Related to the flipping of the burden of proof, the law says information dug up via one of the orders can’t then be used in criminal charges against the target.

…advocates want this to be the start of hundreds of seizure actions against other rich foreigners in the British capital.

Some are already calling for bringing a law like this to the United States, and maybe we’re halfway there already. Asset forfeiture laws, blessed by the Supreme Court, already let police seize your property on suspicion of involvement in a crime and make you go to court to get it back. We’ve been chipping away at financial privacy in this country for decades, through Know Your Customer, suspicious-activity reports, and FATCA (expatriate tax) rules.

Ironically — though recent enactments by Parliament may be changing this, too — Britain’s own peripheral territories and dependencies, including the Channel Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, etc. have long made a good business out of furnishing the rest of the world with the means of financial privacy.

The reversal of the presumption of innocence troubles many Britons, too. For the moment, use of the orders is limited to a few elite law enforcement agencies. One of those agencies, however, is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — the tax collectors. It’s not wrong to worry about where this idea is headed.

Whole thing here.

Federal Aid Fuels Corruption

In a recent study, I described 18 reasons why federal aid-to-state programs should be eliminated. Aid programs are federal subsidies for state and local activities such as K-12 schools, transit, roads, and housing. 

One problem I did not explore in detail is how federal aid fuels political corruption. A Politico story the other day describes a classic case. Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been successfully pressing the Department of Transportation (DOT)—headed by his wife—to give grants to favored projects in his home state of Kentucky.   

Corruption is a harsh word, but consider this contrast. On the one hand, Politico quotes the DOT spokesperson in response to the McConnell scandal: “No state receives special treatment from DOT … Discretionary grant programs are competitive and based on merit.”

On the other hand, McConnell himself frequently brags about bringing home pork to Kentucky. He has never been shy about it, as the Politico story illustrates. And in the story, DOT grant recipients in Kentucky are quite sure that McConnell’s arm-twisting made the difference.

If DOT grants are supposed to be allocated on merit, but they are actually steered by self-interested power politics, that’s corruption. And that pork-barrel dynamic exacerbates inefficiencies in the aid system, such as the misuse of resources in low-value activities, as discussed in my study.

It is more efficient to fund state and local activities with state and local money, and doing so would reduce the fuel that powers corruption in Washington.

Here are excerpts from the Politico story by Tucker Doherty and Tanya Snyder:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Chao’s aide Todd Inman, who stated in an email to McConnell’s Senate office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary, helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell — including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.

Beginning in April 2017, Inman and Chao met annually with a delegation from Owensboro, Ky., a river port with long connections to McConnell, including a plaza named in his honor.

… Chao’s designation of Inman as a special intermediary for Kentucky — a privilege other states did not enjoy — gave a special advantage to projects favored by her husband, which could in turn benefit his political interests.

… In fact, days after launching his 2020 reelection campaign McConnell asked Owensboro’s mayor to set up a luncheon with business and political leaders at which the senator claimed credit for delivering the grant. “How about that $11 million BUILD grant?” McConnell asked the crowd rhetorically, according to the Owensboro Times. He then recalled his role in securing earlier grants to the city, adding, “It’s done a lot to transform Owensboro, and I was really happy to have played a role in that.”

… Owensboro wasn’t the only beneficiary of Inman’s assistance. He also communicated with McConnell’s office about multiple requests from county executives to meet with Chao to speak about potential projects in Kentucky, according to emails which, like the others, were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog group American Oversight.


Macroeconomic Forecasting Seems Pretty Hopeless

The yield on 10-year Treasury securities is currently 2.1 percent. Now look at the chart below from the Wall Street Journal showing expert predictions about what the current rate would be.

The Journal reports:

  • “Not a single respondent in January’s Wall Street Journal survey of economists predicted the yield on the 10-year Treasury note would fall below 2.5% this year.”
  • “In October, when yields on the 10-year Treasury were near their peak of around 3.2%, none of the more than 50 respondents in The Wall Street Journal’s monthly survey of economists predicted yields would dip below 2.75% by June 2019. The average forecast was 3.39%.”

Forecasts of interest rates appear pretty awful, and this is a market where vast profits are at stake so there are big incentives to get it right. I’ve noted (here and here) that economists are also lousy at predicting economic growth.

What are the policy implications? The economy is too complex and uncertain for even the best economists to predict, so politicians stand no chance. It seems unlikely that political schemes from Washington to manage and manipulate our future economy would work.

Furthermore, while businesses are forced to eat humble pie and change direction when the economy changes, the government is a rigid institution led by people who never admit their mistakes. So when politicians move economic resources around, the resources often get stuck in low-value uses for years on end.


Note: my critique here regards macroeconomic predictions. Microeconomic analysis is different.

The Fairness Doctrine Was Terrible for Broadcasting and It Would Be Terrible for the Internet

Skepticism of big tech companies is surging on both sides of the political spectrum, from Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren calling for breaking up Amazon to Republican Senator Josh Hawley advocating rules that would prohibit online viewpoint discrimination. This wave of techno-progressivism finds its latest expression in Slate journalist April Glaser’s article, “Bring Back the Golden Age of Broadcast Regulation.”

Glaser argues that the problems of internet discourse—eg hate speech, haphazard content moderation, and conspiracy peddling—are so trenchant that government intervention is warranted. She calls for applying the rules that once governed mid-twentieth century radio and television broadcasting to the internet, the most important of which was the mandate that broadcasting be done in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” as laid out in the 1934 Communications Act. Inspired by that mandate, reform-minded progressives at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, which required broadcasters to provide multiple points of view when discussing political disagreements.

Glaser’s proposal is light on details about how exactly broadcast rules would be adapted for the internet, but it is heavy on assurances that any such regulations would be “light-touch.” Those who worry that inviting the feds to just “do something” could lead to violations of free speech need not be concerned. As Glaser argues, “For decades, radio and television followed regulations—hardly heavy-handed ones—meant to ensure they served the information needs of their audiences and did not actively harm political discourse.”

That would be lovely, if it were true, but not a single part of that statement is correct. The belief that government regulation of internet content providers will be effective and minimally-invasive is rooted in a poor understanding of the history of broadcast regulation. That history actually suggests the opposite, that these regulations will be ineffective, highly-intrusive, and will create significant unintended consequences.