- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 13, 2021

Homeland Security spent more than $20 million for detention beds that went unused during just one month last year, according to a new congressional audit.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, said Friday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t follow its own rules for obtaining new detention beds, and lacks a “strategic approach” to doling out contracts.

In particular ICE, which relies heavily on private facilities or renting space from local jails, has increasingly turned to the use of guaranteed minimums when it signs contracts. But with the detained population so dynamic, it often means the agency is paying for space it isn’t using.

GAO said that by May 2020 ICE had 43 contracts that had guaranteed minimums, accounting for more than 28,000 beds. More than half of the contracts failed to meet the minimums over the previous year.

As of May 11, 2020, ICE was paying for 12,027 empty beds a day, on average, at a cost of $20.5 million for the month,” the GAO said.

That didn’t include another 13 facilities where ICE pays a flat rate no matter what, and where the agency fell short of its guaranteed minimum last May. Five of those facilities never hit their minimum for the entire preceding year, from May 2019 to May 2020.

ICE’s detention capacity has been a source of severe political debate in recent years, with immigrant-rights groups complaining too many people are being detained, and saying the use of privately run facilities encourages more detention when monitored release is a better option. House Democrats last year tried to slash ICE’s detention budget and force it to cut its population. Republicans blocked that.

ICE officials say once released, many illegal immigrants break their conditions and abscond, making it all but impossible to deport them.

ICE already has a massive backlog of more than 3 million people on its docket, with 1.2 million actively awaiting deportation. Only a few tens of thousand are in detention, and ICE has resources to monitor another 100,000 or so out in the communities.

All told, ICE spent more than $3 billion to detain migrants in 2020, with $1.3 billion — about 40% — going to guaranteed-payment contracts. One specific contract alone cost $254.5 million, the GAO said.

ICE told the auditors it often had to agree to the generous contract terms because of the nature of migrant detention, with the numbers changing based on unpredictable conditions such as border surges or changes in priorities set by politicians.

Also, the refusal of some states and localities to work with ICE means the agency has less bargaining power.

But Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) staffers in field offices blamed ICE headquarters in Washington for insisting upon lenient contracts, and said they knew they were wasting money.

“For example, an official from one ERO field office said his office expected to pay at least a million dollars a month for empty beds in recently negotiated contracts and agreements that the field office did not believe were necessary,” the GAO audit said.

Indeed, the audit found ICE did pay $1.2 million a month for empty beds in that area.

ICE only runs a small percentage of detention facilities itself, and relies heavily on contracts, particularly with private detention companies.

The audit said it’s impossible from ICE data to figure out how many of the 185 detainee facilities it had contracts with fell into that category, though at least 31 were.

In its official response, Homeland Security said ICE has written new guidance to try to improve data collection on contracts.

Homeland Security agreed with four of the five recommendations the GAO made, including improving its information flow about contracts and trying to think more strategically about detention needs.

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