As the number of immigrants detained in Phoenix, Arizona, continues to climb, it’s easy to forget about the real costs to the local economy.
The city has spent $100m since 2009 to house over 200,000 people in overcrowded jails and immigration detention facilities, but according to a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union, the money is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“We spent $20 billion on detention facilities.
We have spent almost $20 million on immigration detention, and we don’t even have any money for detention,” said Alicia Lopez, an immigration lawyer in Phoenix who has represented many people detained there.
“It’s not enough.
We need to get the money we spent into other things.”
For the last four years, Lopez has been working with a group of lawyers and advocacy groups, and they have developed a strategy to push Phoenix officials to end its costly immigration detention system.
The city has an estimated 20,000 undocumented immigrants in its custody.
The majority are undocumented students, young people, the homeless, and families with children, Lopez said.
“They have no legal right to stay in the US.
And it’s their right to be here.
They don’t have to worry about being deported,” she said.
The strategy is called the Arizona Immigrant Fee.
It’s a fee imposed by the state of Arizona on all undocumented immigrants who are released back into the US after their initial court dates and are deemed to have not paid a fine.
The fee was introduced as part of the Fiscal Year 2017 budget package.
The fee was intended to help the city deal with the influx of undocumented immigrants.
But Lopez said it was not a solution to the problem.
“The state has a duty to provide services, and the state can’t simply take the money they are paying and give it to cities,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I would argue that this money is not being used to fund the people that we’re talking about.
It’s being used for something else.”
Lopez has spent her career fighting for people in detention, but the costs are growing.
She said she had clients jailed for over a year in the city’s overcrowded jail system because of the fees.
Lopez said the city should be working to get rid of the fee altogether, and instead redirect it towards services like mental health and job placement.
“You can’t just use the money that’s being spent to keep people in jail to fund services that are not needed,” she added.
The American Civil Liberty Union’s study, published last year, found that Arizona’s immigration detention costs the state $16.4 billion annually, including $10.5bn in administrative costs.
Lisbon said the state’s detention facilities are often overcrowded and have few resources, and people are being locked up for minor infractions.
“It’s really expensive to incarcerate people in these facilities.
There’s a whole array of other issues to deal with,” she explained.”
There’s a huge amount of stress, and you have to be on edge for the next three months or two months, and then you’re just hoping to get out.
It takes a long time to rehabilitate people, to get them back into a society where they can be productive again.”
Lisboa said she hopes that Phoenix can take a lesson from the United States.
“Phoenix, for many years, was a shining city, a shining example of how America works.
I think people need to look at themselves and look at what they are doing and look back on how they’ve been able to do it,” she continued.
“And I think we should take some of that credit for doing so.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s immigration reporter, Mariana DeAratanha, on Twitter: @marianadaratanha