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Democrats are trying to use the border security deal to rein in ICE

They aim to make ICE prioritize people with criminal records rather than longtime residents who are part of the fabric of their communities.

by Emily Green
Feb 12 2019, 9:41pm

President Trump told reporters Tuesday that he isn’t “thrilled” about the border security deal hashed out by Democratic and Republican lawmakers to avoid another government shutdown, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll sign it.

The “agreement in principle” announced Monday night includes $1.375 billion for fencing and barriers to deter undocumented immigrants, just a fraction of the $5.6 billion Trump had sought for 200 miles of steel-concrete wall. But the proposed deal also doesn’t give Trump the funding the White House had wanted to increase the number of ICE detention beds. Pressure from the Democrats late in the negotiations forced a compromise on that: The White House wanted funding for 52,000 beds, the Democrats had wanted a bed cap of about 35,000. In the end, they agreed to keep the current funding level, for 40,520 beds.

While that technically would maintain the status quo, it’s practically a 17 percent decrease from the current levels, because ICE keeps surpassing the cap under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. By limiting funding for beds in detention facilities, Dems aimed to make ICE prioritize people with criminal records rather than undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for decades and are part of the fabric of their communities.

ICE now detains around 49,000 people daily, and an average of 20,700 are undocumented immigrants from the interior of the country, according to ICE statistics provided to Congress.

These are record-high levels that reflect the zero tolerance policy treating every undocumented immigrant as a priority for deportation – not just ones with criminal records or recent border crossers. It also reflects the record number of families arriving to the U.S. seeking asylum, who can’t be deported immediately.

“The Obama administration had deportation policies that focused on felons and not families. [But with] the Trump administration, it’s like open season,” Rep. Nanette Barragán of California said on Monday, before the deal was announced. “The focus on the beds is an attempt to get the Trump administration to focus on criminals and stop going after productive people in society.” (ICE contracts with both local governments and private prison companies to hold detained immigrants.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that the Democrats were sabotaging the negotiations with their demand for a cap on beds, telling journalists Monday that the Democrats’ “extreme” demand was a “poison pill” added at the 11th hour.

One big caveat to the deal is that there appears to be nothing in the current agreement that would prevent ICE from continuing to exceed the congressionally-mandated cap on detention beds. A Democratic congressional aide said the hope is that the Democrat-controlled House would refuse ICE’s requests for additional funding and limit its ability to use funds designated for other initiatives.

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute, said the deal marks a big turning point – but only if has a mechanism to ensure ICE adheres to the 40,520 cap.

“If it does force ICE to reduce the detained population, that’s a big deal,” she said. “But we have seen from under this administration a consistent pattern of ICE detaining more people than they are funded for. So if there no teeth to this agreement, then why would ICE go along with his plan to drastically reduce their detained population?”

Democrats had initially demanded a cap of 35,520 detention beds for the remainder of the year, and an end to the detention of family units who arrive seeking asylum. They had also insisted that no more than 16,500 beds be occupied by immigrants detained through ICE enforcement activities in the interior part of the country – a shorthand way of referring to immigrants often picked up in workplace raids or during routine check-ins with immigration authorities. Neither provisions are included in the deal struck on Monday.

The Democratic congressional aide described the deal as a small gain.

“It puts us on a path to bring the number of beds down,” the aide said. “While we would have loved to go lower, we believe this presents the best deal we could have gotten in this political environment.”

Cover: This Dec. 10, 2008, file photo shows a row of beds at the Elizabeth Detention Facility, a Corrections Corporation of America immigration facility in Elizabeth, N.J. CCA, the largest contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reached a preliminary agreement in May 2010, to soften confinement, free of charge, at nine immigrant facilities covering more than 7,100 beds. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

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