A briefer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stood outside the closed-door meeting Wednesday while negotiators working on a homeland security spending deal heard from border experts, who made their pitch for a border wall.
The ICE briefer never made it in the room, an administration official said.
If he had been allowed to speak, he would have told them that the limits they’re pondering to immigrant detention, proposed by Democrats, would lead to 30,000 people being released back onto the streets, including thousands of migrants with criminal records.
Even Senate Republicans’ ante would mean cuts to ICE’s ability to hold all the illegal immigrants the agency says need to be detained if the government is going to begin to make a dent in the illegal immigration problem.
While most of the public focus in the negotiations has been on President Trump’s call for a border wall, the number of detention beds available to hold illegal immigrants is just as big of a sticking point — and perhaps even more critical to achieving Mr. Trump’s stated goal of cutting illegal immigration.
“ICE was disappointed not to be able to address the conference committee directly,” the administration source told The Washington Times.
Left outside the room, ICE has instead produced a briefing document for the negotiators. The document defends the president’s call for 52,000 detention beds and says both Democrats’ plan — cutting ICE to about 35,520 beds — and even Senate Republicans’ proposal of about 40,520 beds would mean dangerous migrants would have to be set free.
“Up to 30,000 releases of criminals, illegal aliens with criminal charges and recent border crossers” would not be held, ICE said. In some cases ICE would even be forced to break the law to release migrants deemed subject to “mandatory detention” by Congress, the briefing says.
Not only would that cut down on deterrence of illegal immigration, but it would mean fewer criminals would be ousted from American communities, ICE argued.
Both Democrats and Republicans negotiating the spending bill acknowledged beds are a major sticking point, along with the wall.
“It’s one of the things that are being negotiated,” said Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat.
He disputed ICE’s claim that 30,000 migrants, including thousands of criminals, would be released under the Democratic plan.
“I really doubt that would be the case, but we’ll see,” he said.
Lawmakers also said they were happy to hear from Border Patrol officials Wednesday, who provided a secret briefing about what they need in terms of border wall.
“That was really the focus of the meeting, rather than ICE’s role. We’ll have funding in the package for ICE. The pushback that we’ve been getting is on the border barrier funding,” said Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, said they heard from the people they thought they needed — and that was the Border Patrol.
“I guess you look back in retrospect, say we could have brought so and so in. I thought the meeting yesterday was overall very good — told us some things that we needed from the experts — not something we politically thought of,” he said.
Immigration experts, though, said detention beds are a critical component if Congress’s goal is to reduce illegal immigration.
“The border wall’s not unimportant, but we’re going to get more bang for the buck for detention than for extra fencing,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
“I’m not against extra fencing, I’m for it, but we put inordinate emphasis on it, when in fact holding people in detention to make sure they show up [for deportation] is going to be a more effective deterrent to future people,” he said.
But detention is anathema to immigrant-rights advocates and some left-wing Democrats in Congress.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, led a rally on Capitol Hill on Thursday where she said ICE “does not deserve a dime.”
Fellow freshman Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, said she didn’t want to see either Customs and Border Protection or ICE get any more money.
“The deal reached by the conference committee should not allocate one more dollar to this department or to the ICE and CBP agencies,” she said.
Democratic negotiators are aware of that sentiment, and an aide tracking the deal-making said the number of detention beds in a final agreement is “very important” to Democrats.
“Limiting the number of ICE detention beds is a way of controlling the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies,” the Democratic aide said. “If history is a guide, there has to be some compromise on both beds and border infrastructure and we are working to ensure there is a workable glide path downward on beds.”
The aide also countered ICE’s claims of mass releases, saying the agency wouldn’t have to release everyone at once but could ratchet down its detention and come up with better priorities for who has to be held.
But Democrats’ proposal would not only cut the number of beds, it would also limit who could be held, cutting the number of people able to be detained from ICE’s arrests within the interior of the U.S. to 16,500.
“ICE is currently detaining recent border crossers who have passed asylum interviews for too long, and they are arresting many people in the interior of the United States who are not criminals or who have minor criminal records, including many with only immigration violations,” the Democratic aide said.
ICE currently has about 46,000 people in detention, well above the mandated floor of 40,520. Of those, about 21,000 are from interior arrests — mostly criminals. Democrats’ plan would mean perhaps 4,500 of them would have to be released in order to meet the 16,500 limit, according to an administration official.
Democrats say they want to see illegal immigrants put on ankle monitoring devices or given counseling and regular check-ins, rather than be put into detention.
Their plan would raise the number of people in alternatives to detention from 82,000 to 100,000.
In particular, Democrats want to phase out family detention, calling it cruel.
ICE says that would force them into a catch-and-release policy. Already, one ICE office in El Paso, Texas, is releasing 300 to 500 family members a day.
Immigrant-rights advocates say it’s cheaper to release someone on alternatives than to hold them in detention. A 2014 audit found keeping someone on alternatives for a day costs just 7 percent of what it does to keep someone detained.
But ICE says there are downsides.
Some 30 percent of illegal-immigrant parents caught and released with an ankle bracelet cut the bracelet off in the first days after being released, an ICE official testified to Congress last year.
And since people in detention have their cases heard faster, they are deported faster.
Homeland Security says that in 2017, 2,430 migrants were deported after being kept on alternatives to detention, at a cost of $183 million. That works out to $75,360 per deportation.
The department says if that money had been used for detention, it could have helped deport 10 times as many people.
There are one million migrants who have been ordered deported but who are still free in the U.S., ICE says.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said if Congress wants to cut into the current surge of illegal immigration, it must pony up for detention beds.
“Without the necessary detention authority and sufficient funding for family beds to enable ICE to detain family units when they are ordered removed, ICE will still only be able to remove a very small percentage of family units, thereby increasing the pull factors and further contributing to the border crisis,” she said.
Democrats, though, say the administration is inflating the border situation.
While Republicans’ border security plans focus on illegal immigration, Democrats say the bigger threat is drug-smuggling. Rather than boost border agents and deportation officers, they have called for more technology and officers at ports of entry to screen cars and trucks for banned drugs, and Homeland Security agents to target drugs, gangs and cybersecurity.
Democrats’ plan also calls for millions of dollars in additional funding to improve conditions at detention facilities.