Those in Congress who oppose Trump’s demands for a border wall used the shutdown negotiations this week to launch an attempt to rein in the President’s deportation efforts by reducing the number of detention beds available for immigration arrests for immigrants unlawfully present inside the country. ICE currently detains about 45,000 immigrants on average per day, but is only funded to hold 40,000, according to the agency. As part of the current shutdown negotiations, President Trump and the Republicans have proposed raising the number to 52,000, while the Democrats’ counteroffer would put the number below 36,000.
Democrats suggesting and backing the proposal to limit the bed space hope to force the agency to make more discerning determinations on who should and who shouldn’t be detained. The idea is to force the agency to use the limited bed space for those with serious offenses and encourage the release (or in some cases non-detention at all) of those who are illegally in the country with no criminal or with only simple traffic offenses. Republicans in turn argue that limiting bed space would put the public at harm and damage public safety.
Statistics show higher deportation totals for detainees held during President Obama ‘s years in office, but this is attributed to the tailored enforcement approach ICE took due to President Obama limiting ICE resources and thus forcing agents to prioritize violent criminal offenders who are less likely to be granted status when fighting in immigration court. In 2018, ICE arrested about 20,000 immigrants with no criminal history for being in the country illegally. That’s over twice the number of immigrants without criminal history who were arrested in fiscal year 2016, when President Barack Obama was in office. Yet, president Obama’s deportation totals remain higher.
But the controversy over beds is more than just about who should be a priority, as usual, money is also a primary concern. ICE relies on a network of both government-run and privately-operated detention centers to hold immigration detainees throughout the duration of their immigration proceedings. Costs for those beds varies wildly, and some county jails (often those with terrible conditions and/or in very rural areas) have converted entire sections of their facilities into immigration detention facilities in order to offer rock-bottom rates in undesirable areas of the country. Since the number of beds funded annually by Congress is based on the average national daily cost for one detainee, ICE can maximize the number of detainees and beds by using these less than desirable facilities.
Since March 2018, ICE has been instructed to keep an “average daily population” of 40,520 beds, but it hasn’t met that instruction. As of September 15, 2018, 42,105 people were in detention. As of October 20, 2018, 44,631 people were, and by February 6, 2019 that number had jumped to 49,057. The new funding bill aims to get ICE to gradually reduce the number of detainees back to previously authorized levels.
So, given that this is a Democratically controlled Congress, will ICE be forced to reduce the bed numbers in the end? Unlikely. President Trump has repeatedly stated immigration is a public safety concern, so even if a deal that limits the bed numbers is in fact reached, this author believes the resulting budget gap will ultimately be filled through the transfer of more money through reprogramming.