House Republicans Set the Wrong Priorities for Immigration Detention

The immigration detention system is expensive, abusive, and unnecessary. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has taken significant steps to improve conditions in the nation’s 250 detention facilities in recent years, it is up to Congress and the President to appropriate money for immigration detention and determine how many immigrants may be detained every night.

So it was heartening to see that President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget for ICE included sensible changes to the detention system [pdf]. His budget would decrease immigration detention bed space while increasing the budget for alternatives to detention (ATDs). While these changes don’t go nearly far enough towards ending the government’s over-reliance on immigration detention, they show a clear commitment to reducing its use, while saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the process.

But House Republicans had a different idea. Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee released its 2013 appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security [pdf], including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While their proposal trimmed even more money from the administration’s total request for ICE, it reversed President Obama’s reasonable requests aimed at creating a more humane immigration system.

For example:

  • Under the Republican budget, over half ($2.75 billion) of the entire ICE budget of $5.2 billion would be spent on detention and removal operations;
  • Of that $2.75 billion, only $91 million would be spent on ATDs, which cost on average over $100 less per person per day than detention and are highly effective at ensuring that immigrants in removal proceedings appear in Immigration Court. While this is still an increase over the $72.4 million appropriated in the 2012 budget, the administration requested $111.59 million for ATDs;
  • The vast majority of that money would be spent on immigration detention, holding detention bed space at the 2012 level of 34,000 beds, contrary to the administration’s request to reduce that number to 32,800.

In some respects, House Republicans’ insistence on detaining more and more immigrants is not surprising. Republicans on the House Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee routinely paint all immigrants as violent criminals, harping on isolated incidents of deaths caused by immigrants driving while drunk.

Despite ample evidence of abusive conditions in immigration detention facilities, including a number of preventable deaths in ICE custody over the past several years, these same Republicans recently held a hearing comparing immigration detention to a “holiday”. And the private prison corporations that run about half of all immigration detention beds spend millions lobbying Republicans and Democrats alike to appropriate money for detention—money that goes directly into the pockets of their CEOs, who earn millions of dollars from the suffering of immigrants.

But it is puzzling that Republicans, after spending much of the last three years calling for drastic reductions in federal expenditures (and nearly shutting down the government several times in the process), would not welcome an opportunity to save money by reforming the wasteful immigration detention system.

While this proposed budget is almost certain to pass in the Republican-led House, its prospects in the Senate are less clear.

If you’re concerned about our country’s disgraceful immigration detention system, contact your Senators and tell them that you want a sensible ICE budget that reduces our reliance on immigration detention.

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