Government Quietly Increases ICE Detention to 48,000 Beds During the Shutdown

Jan. 31 2019 – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) drastically expanded its network of immigration jails in the last month by a startling 7 percent. ICE now holds about 48,000 individuals in its jails and private prisons, even though Congress has only appropriated funds for them to detain 40,500 individuals on any given day.

How can a government agency overspend at such an alarming rate?

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ICE’s budget has been set at its current level since December 2017, when Congress agreed to a continuing resolution for Fiscal Year 2018. As it stands, ICE is overspending its appropriate budget by jailing 7,500 more people every day than Congress’s last appropriated spending levels allow.

Due to overspending on the part of ICE, the Trump administration diverted nearly $10 million in funding to them from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in September 2018. The costly expansion is particularly troubling given the fact that it took place during the recent government shutdown, which was the longest in U.S. history and cost the economy $11 billion.

The increase in ICE detention reflects a bump of one billion dollars in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s appropriation budget for immigration detention and enforcement, from $3.212 billion in fiscal year 2016 to $4.110 billion in fiscal year 2018.

This is not the first time that ICE overspent what Congress has appropriated, then sought to take funds away from other agencies providing vital services.

For the past three years, ICE has systematically manipulated the appropriations process to achieve its objective of expanding detention and enforcement. After overspending its budget, ICE then looks for money from other DHS agencies. ICE then uses the inflated budget as a starting point to begin negotiating the next year’s budget. In this way, the number of immigration beds—and ICE’s budget—will only continue to increase.

As congressional negotiators begin the post-shutdown debate over the 2019 budget, the parties have approached ICE’s overspending from very different angles. Republicans are pushing for the budget proposed by President Trump, which would increase ICE detention beds to 52,000. On the other hand, Democrats have proposed cutting ICE detention capacity, expanding access to alternatives to detention, and increasing ICE oversight.

ICE has a horrifying track record of care for those they hold in detention. Immigrants are increasingly held in facilities operated by massive and powerful private prison companies such as CoreCivic and GEO, both of which have long histories of cutting corners in order to increase their profit margin. Many are held in remote areas, far from loved ones and metropolitan areas in which they might find access to pro bono legal services or experts that may help them fight their case. Access to medical and mental health care is very limited, exemplified by the 22 immigrants who have died in ICE custody in just the past two years.

The availability of alternatives to detention (ATDs) renders the boom of immigration detention even more absurd. ATDs are as effective, yet far more humane and less costly. The most commonly used ATD, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, costs only $4.04 per day. The government’s use of costly detention—at $130 per night for an adult and over $320 per night per family member—counters common sense when many of those who are detained have demonstrated that they are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

ICE generally has full discretion to release detained individuals and permit them to continue fighting their cases in a non-detained setting but chooses to keep them locked up regardless. This not only costs the American taxpayers far more than it should, but the practice of locking up individuals who pose no threat to the nation is immoral.

ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council.