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ICE Is Detaining More People Than Ever—and for Longer

Between May and July, the average number of days detainees spent in custody went from 28 to 46.
The main ICE detention center is seen in downtown Los Angeles, California, on July 14th, 2019.

The main ICE detention center is seen in downtown Los Angeles, California, on July 14th, 2019.

The number of people being held in United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities reached an all-time high this week—again. There are currently 55,185 people in ICE's custody, which represents a jump of almost 3,000 in comparison to just last week (which was already a record). But despite President Donald Trump's claims of a national emergency at the southern border and his pushes for border wall funding, this increase might have less to do with border apprehensions than with prolonged detention.

According to the most recent detention management data from ICE for the fiscal year 2019, there was a significant drop in the number of detainees who were booked in to an ICE facility after being referred to the agency by Customs and Border Protection in July when compared to May—from 44,945 to 19,439. Meanwhile, the average length of stay in detention went from 28 to 46 days during that same period.

The current number of people in custody far surpasses the number of occupied beds ICE should have. As Jack Herrera previously wrote for Pacific Standard, each year Congress approves funding for ICE's detention operations, which includes all costs involved in housing a certain average daily detention population:

From 2012 to 2017, ICE was funded for an ADP of 34,000. But for the last two years, ICE has come back to Congress with a surprise: It had dramatically overspent its budget for detention. ICE was detaining significantly more people—upwards of 50,000.

Last February, Congress agreed to fund around 45,000 detention beds until the end of the fiscal year—less than the 52,000 requested by the Trump administration. Still, by May, the actual detained population had already reached more than 52,000.

"This new record continues ICE's now historical habit of ignoring congressional limitations on its budget and unilaterally increasing its detention bedspace," Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told BuzzFeed News at the time. "The fact that ICE has rather brazenly now exceeded 52,000 individuals in custody should raise red flags in Congress. This is a threat to Congress' power of the purse."

The government is allowed to expand ICE's detention capacity by redirecting funds from other agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard. But the continued overspending and expansion of facilities raise questions about where all that money is coming from and who is benefiting from keeping people in prolonged detention.

Although immigration detention has exponentially increased over the past two decades, during the second term of the Obama administration, ICE began to prioritize the arrests of immigrants with criminal convictions. Under the Trump administration's enforcement priorities, however, that is no longer the case. According to a recent assessment by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, despite the higher number of individuals detained by ICE from September of 2016 through December of 2018, fewer had committed serious crimes.

Similarly, advocates argue, this administration has consistently denied parole to asylum seekers with credible fears who don't pose a threat to public safety. Earlier this month, a federal judge blocked the implementation of a policy that could have led to indefinite detention for asylum seekers by denying them bond hearings.