It’s not “abolish ICE,” but House Democrats took their best shot Monday, announcing a bill to slash the Department of Homeland Security’s deportation operations by 25%, blocking new hiring of Border Patrol agents and trying to erase dozens of miles of President Trump’s border wall.
The fiscal 2021 spending bill introduced by the House Appropriations Committee would claw back the $1.4 billion Congress agreed to this year and would ban any new construction.
Democrats said the measure also would eliminate detention of families by the end of the year, forcing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release them into the community.
Homeland Security would be ordered to expand access to lawyers for people facing deportation, and watchdogs would receive new funding to police ICE’s operations.
Top Democrats made no bones about their goal of handcuffing Mr. Trump, particularly when it comes to wall construction, which one called a “racist … boondoggle.”
“Our bill fights for a more humane immigration approach, including the more restricted use of civil detention, expanded alternatives to detention, and the phase-out of family detention this year,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversees Homeland Security funding.
The bill is national Democrats’ first law enforcement ante amid Black Lives Matters’ “defund the police” crusade. Still to come later this week is Democrats’ proposal for funding for the Justice Department.
ICE became a flashpoint in the immigration debate over the last decade, though it has become particularly intense under Mr. Trump and his battle with sanctuary cities.
Calls to abolish the agency picked up steam in 2018, during the government’s zero-tolerance border policy, which led to criminal charges against parents who jumped the border with children — and led to separation of those families, without adequate measures in place to reunite them.
Democrats, who took control of the House in 2019, didn’t have much luck cutting the agency in their first year, but the new bill signals they aren’t discouraged.
The measure would slash $1.1 billion from ICE’s deportation and detention division, cutting it to $3.3 billion. That’s $2.4 billion less than Mr. Trump asked for.
At this point last year, ICE had more than 50,000 people in detention, and as of late last month still had 22,805 people in detention, even after coronavirus releases. The bill would cut that to just 10,000 during the pandemic, and just 22,000 in normal times. Instead, it pumps money into ankle bracelets and phone check-in programs.
Cesar Vargas, an immigrant-rights activist and advocate for abolishing ICE, called that “a right step to diminish the power of a rogue agency that has a bloated budget and doesn’t keep our country safe.”
“The main goal, however, is to completely abolish this agency and allocate these millions of dollars to USCIS to help immigrants become tax paying citizens and help their adjustment in the U.S. better,” said Mr. Vargas, who became one of the first “Dreamers” to practice law.
Other groups that have called for abolishing ICE, though, were silent on the new bill.
Those who want to see stricter enforcement said the legislation was an attempt to “dismantle immigration enforcement.”
“Making catch and release the law of the land will ensure the next border surge,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA.
The bill also imposes a general 20-day limit on detention — far shorter than most deportations take — and sets an even higher standard for detaining transgender migrants, limiting them to five days in detention.
Ms. Roybal-Allard has slated the bill for action in her subcommittee Tuesday.
Overall, Mr. Trump had asked for $15.8 billion for Customs and Border Protection. The bill allocates $14.6 billion. He wanted $10 billion for ICE, while the legislation gives him just $7.4 billion. Last year the agency received more than $8 billion.
Mr. Trump asked for $2 billion for border wall construction this year, less than the $5 billion he sought for 2020 — but still more than the $1.375 billion Congress allocated for 2020.
Angered by Congress’ decision, Mr. Trump claimed emergency powers and shifted billions from Pentagon accounts to go to his wall.
That transfer of money is under litigation, with opponents arguing he is violating Congress’s power of the purse by directing money to places lawmakers didn’t intend. The administration counters that Congress never specifically banned the transfer of money, and it was legal under both Defense Department spending law and the National Emergencies Act.
Democrats’ new bill seeks to remove all doubt, explicitly barring any new wall construction and rescinding even the $1.375 billion included in the 2020 bill.
The bill does include $75 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate effects of past wall construction.