March 22, 2014|By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Every day, hundreds of immigrants suspected of living in the country illegally are held behind bars in Florida, part of a controversial crackdown that helps fill a federal detention-bed quota.

Critics call the quota a boondoggle that benefits privately run prisons and spreads anguish through immigrant communities. Defenders say it compels federal officials to enforce immigration law and discourages illegal migration.

Now President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch and Florida immigrant leaders are trying to scale back or eliminate the quota, which requires detaining an average of 34,000 immigrants a day nationwide.

“You have this broken immigration system with a bottleneck of cases, but they are still going after people to detain them and meet this quota, while racking up costs to the taxpayers,” said Melissa McGuire-Maniau, of Winter Park. Her husband was detained in Pompano Beach before being released and becoming a permanent legal resident.

“There are thousands of cases like my husband’s. We know it when we see friends and family who are here today and vanished tomorrow. A mother or husband or friend goes to work but doesn’t make it home, and everyone is worried sick. Then you find out three days later they are in detention.”

She and other activists say the “bed mandate” encourages officials to pick up immigrants who commit minor violations or get flagged while seeking documents.

Removing the quota would mean that authorities “would not go out of their way to detain people for minor offenses or because they look like an immigrant,” said Marlene Dindyal, 49, of Port St. Lucie. She was detained for three years and deported to Trinidad before a federal court ruled that she had not committed a deportable offense and allowed her to return.

The quota began in 2009 when an immigration crackdown led to record numbers of deportations. The crackdown continues, even as Congress considers legislation that would allow millions of foreign residents to remain here legally.

“Many of the people being detained and deported would be eligible for relief if a comprehensive reform bill were to pass,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. “It’s beyond absurd to require that X-number be arrested and detained on a daily basis. It’s a boondoggle for the private prison industry.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spends about $2 billion a year on detention — more than $5 million a day. Some inmates are kept in federal facilities such as the Krome Detention Center in Miami. Some are in county jails. Most are held in privately run prisons such as the Broward Transitional Center, a 700-bed compound in Pompano Beach.

The agency reported last week that 1,526 detainees were being held in Florida facilities as of March 15.

Some detainees from Central Florida are sent to Broward or other facilities, and some are held briefly at county jails. Orange County Jail officials say they housed an average of 98 immigrant detainees per day from July 2012 through June 2013 at a daily cost of $103 each. The county got $2.2 million from federal agencies in fiscal 2013 to pay for it.

More than $127 million was allotted for detention contracts in Florida from October 2011 through last year, according to a compilation of federal figures by CIVIC, an advocacy group for detainees and their families.

One of the largest prison companies is the Boca Raton-based Geo Group, which runs the Broward center and 97 other detention sites worldwide.

Geo spends heavily to promote its interests in Washington. The company has given $56,375 to political groups and candidates in 2013-14 and spent $460,000 on lobbying in 2013, according to a compilation of federal reports by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“As a matter of long-standing policy, our company does not take a position on or advocate for any specific immigration policies,” a Geo spokesman said last week. “Our company’s efforts are aimed exclusively at educating decision-makers on the benefits of public-private partnerships, which have been independently validated to generate savings for taxpayers while providing high-quality services and improved programs.”

Some Republicans in Congress promote the quota, saying it ensures that Obama administration enforces immigration law. Their views are echoed by some Floridians who think enforcement remains lax.

“Some of these people they apprehend and hold should have been deported as soon as possible to make room for others who they pick up, instead of releasing them,” said Bill Landes of Winter Haven, a board member of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement.

Caught in the middle, Obama is trying to show he is enforcing the law while making the process more humane. He proposed a budget earlier this month that calls for easing the bed mandate while providing enough funding for 30,539 detention beds.

“ICE will continue to focus on the most serious criminals and continue to achieve record criminal removal levels at a reduced cost under this proposed budget,” ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale told Congress.

Rep. Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat, is leading efforts to remove the mandate. “This is a $2 billion line item that strips away the discretion of law enforcement to do its job,” Deutch said.

“There are people, including at the Broward Transitional Center, who have been detained just to occupy beds — people who are no threat to the community, who don’t pose a flight risk, people with full-time jobs and families in the community, and students as well. Especially in South Florida, this isn’t just an immigration issue, it’s a human-rights issue.”

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