A House Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday morning highlighted the sharp divide in Congress over illegal immigration and what should be done about it, presaging the difficult fight ahead when Congress eventually begins to tackle proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.
The number of immigrants in government detention has more than doubled over the last ten years, with more than 360,000 detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in the last year. As a result, ICE now operates the largest detention and supervised release system in the country, creating an unprecedented challenge for the agency and for immigrants seeking to challenge their detention. Detainees often face long waits for deportation hearings, and are increasingly transferred to prisons far from where they were apprehended, disrupting their connections with family members and lawyers who can help them.
[Immigration]Thursday’s hearing, ostensibly about how ICE should improve its immigrant detention system, underscored the fundamentally inconsistent positions of lawmakers who either view illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals that need to be locked up and ultimately deported, or as hapless men and women who only broke the law in the hopes of attaining the American dream: a better life for themselves and their families.
“I think the most effective immigration reform is to truly enforce the laws on the books,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who stands squarely in the former camp. “Detention is an important part of enforcement,” he said, a view repeated by most Republican lawmakers and witnesses. “It is not safe or efficient to release thousands of foreign nationals who are in this country illegally,” he continued. “Aliens in detention facilities are not here on vacation . . . They should not be kept in facilities that are better than we give to U.S. citizens who are arrested and awaiting trial.”
Democrats, meanwhile, were concerned that the U.S. is detaining too many immigrants in unnecessarily restrictive conditions, and hampering their ability to claim a right to remain in the United States. Recent reports from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and Human Rights Watch have concluded exactly that, as did a recent report commissioned by ICE itself.
Committee vice-chair Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), presiding over the hearing, said she was “more concerned about the cost of incarcerating people and what type of people we’re incarcerating,” and “if these people have a claim under current law to be in this country that they get through the process in a timely manner in order to put that forward,” she said. “That’s why I called this hearing — not to purchase Hilton hotels,” she quipped, responding to Souder. “They’re not good investments these days anyway.” The Detention and Removal Operations division of ICE had a budget of about $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2009, according to a recent ICE report.
Immigration activists and experts testifying before the committee were equally divided. Dora Schriro, author of the ICE report and former Director of Detention Policy and Planning for ICE, testified that “ICE lacks critical planning and management tools critical to operating a [detention] system of this magnitude.” She repeated many of the findings from her October report, including that immigrant detainees are inappropriately held in local jails with ordinary criminals and often in more restrictive conditions than necessary. And she recommended that ICE develop better ways of assessing the risks they pose and developing appropriate types of detention and monitoring.
Such a plan rings alarm bells for Chris Crane, vice president for Detention and Removal Operations at ICE, and a representative from the union representing ICE employees who work in that division. The union was not consulted on any planned detention reforms, he testified, adding that “our overall impression of the proposed reforms are not positive. … We are quite concerned that these proposed changes could potentially result in heightened risks for some ICE detainees as well as ICE employees and some contract guards.”
ICE has plans to build “low-custody and open-campus facilities,” Crane said, which will, according to new agency rules, “include many criminals, including drug dealers, gang members, sexual predators and anyone involved in a violent crime committed without a weapon,” he said. He called the open-campus environment “unsafe and impractical.” Recent reports find that about 50 percent of ICE detainees are convicted criminals, he said. But Crane said that number is probably higher, because in his experience, many detainees are arrested on criminal charges and then sent to ICE for custody before conviction because local law enforcement “are overwhelmed by the criminal alien problem” and “lack the resources to house and prosecute the arrestees.”
Donald Kerwin, vice president for Programs at the Migration Policy Institute, agreed that illegal immigrants should be housed based on the risk they pose, but denied that many immigrant detainees are dangerous. “Only 11 percent of detainees have committed violent crimes,” he said, adding that the rest should be placed in the least restrictive environment possible.
Brittney Nystrom, Senior Legal Advisor at the National Immigration Forum, agreed, and emphasized the cost to taxpayers. ICE’s “one-size-fits-all approach to detention” which is “replete with barbed wire, prison uniforms, armed guards and shackles” is ultimately “a wasteful use of government resources.” Alternative to detention programs that provide supervision through electronic monitoring and reporting cost about $14 per day, she testified, whereas incarceration costs about $100 per day.
But many Republicans and immigration restrictionists scoff at such proposals. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies, testified that alternatives to detention are merely “a synonym for ‘catch and release.’ ”
“A majority of criminal aliens who promise to appear for their court dates are simply lying to the immigration authorities,” he said. “We’d be better advised to increase ICE’s bedspace,” although ICE has not requested a budget increase for incarceration, he said.
Krirkorian warned that the problem will only become worse as ICE continues to step up enforcement. ICE has been expanding efforts to encourage local law enforcement to arrest more illegal immigrants. The Secure Communities program requires that local law enforcement fingerprint everyone housed in local jails and send that biometric information to ICE, which can compare it against their databases. The 287(g) program, meanwhile, authorizes local law enforcement to arrest anyone suspected of violating the federal immigration laws. Krikorian on Thursday noted that such programs will lead to a huge increase in the number of illegal immigrants arrested, yet ICE has not sufficiently planned for what to do with them.
Jail space will diminish dramatically, he predicted, and fewer illegal aliens not arrested for criminal behavior will be held. “So the absconder population will resume rapid growth,” he said. Eventually, “criminal aliens will end up having to be released for lack of space” and “those people are going to commit further crimes.” Congress will see “political blowback” from that, he predicted. “And that outrage is going to be deserved.”