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ICE Is Hugely Overspending Its Detention Budget—Again

Immigration advocates argue that ICE detention has exploded because the Trump administration is targeting more immigrants than ever before.
A bunk bed and desks inside a cell are seen at the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Virginia, on August 13th, 2018. A former regional jail, the facility has been contracted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house undocumented adult immigrant detainees for violations of immigration laws.

With its current funding, ICE can detain an average of 45,000 people per day.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has more people in detention than ever in its history: As of Monday, 52,398 people were in ICE custody, an agency official told BuzzFeed News.

The math needed to understand this latest statistic is simple: Congress currently funds ICE to maintain an average of 45,000 people in detention per day (the largest budget in ICE history). Earlier this month, ICE had about 49,000 people in detention. Now, with over 52,000, the agency is overshooting its budget by more than 15 percent.

Because Congress funds ICE for an average daily population, the agency could feasibly stay within its budget by significantly lowering its detention numbers in the coming months. But, in recent years, ICE has pursued a different strategy: relocating funds from elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security, its parent agency.

Last June, ICE redirected funds that were earmarked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The $9.8 million of FEMA money—absorbed by ICE at the beginning of hurricane season—went to fund additional detention, according to documents released by Senator Jeff Merkley (D–Oregon). In total, ICE redirected $169 million from other DHS agencies last year, including the Coast Guard and Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, all for detention.

ICE Has Consistently Overspent Its Budget in Recent Years

As I reported in January:

From 2012 to 2017, ICE was funded for an [average daily population] 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.

"Over the last couple years, ICE has overspent [its] budget that was allocated by Congress for detention," says Madhuri Grewal, the federal immigration policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "So over the last few years, Congress has gotten more specific and more aggressive about directing that funding, basically telling ICE to stop overspending."

In May of 2018, ICE's overspending reached a high enough level for congressional Republicans to take action. They raised ICE's average daily population funding to 40,520 people (which was, at the time, the highest-ever budget), and gave ICE a strict demand: The agency was to keep to its budget, and provide weekly reports to Congress about how it was "living within its means."

But ICE immediately overspent again. By June of 2018, it was asking Congress for another $200 million.

The agency went into 2018 with that same funding—enough to detain 40,520 on average per day. But, in January, ICE had 46,492 people in detention. By early February, that number shot up to 48,747 people.

Advocates Say ICE Is Detaining Thousands of People Unnecessarily

Immigration advocates argue that ICE detention has exploded because the Trump administration is targeting more immigrants than ever before, and paroling fewer people than past administrations. As Pacific Standard reported in April:

ICE once had a mandate to prioritize enforcement activities that would keep Americans safe. However, under President Donald Trump, ICE's priorities have expanded so significantly that the agency's mandate now essentially calls for it to arrest everyone it legally can—not just people who have committed violent crimes, but also mothers and fathers who have worked in the country peacefully for decades.

In addition, more people are being denied parole from ICE detention—including asylum seekers, many of whom have never committed a crime. ICE's own policy directive calls for the agency to parole asylum seekers (who could soon gain valid refugee status) if their identities have been verified and they do not present a flight risk or a danger to the community. But under the Trump administration, ICE has chosen to keep many asylum seekers in detention. According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, from 2011 to 2013, ICE paroled 92 percent of asylum seekers—but during the first six months of Trump's presidency, ICE paroled just 4 percent.

"The [increased detention numbers] is a manufactured issue," Kennji Kizuka, an attorney and senior researcher with the advocacy organization Human Rights First, told Pacific Standard in January. "ICE has gone out of its way not to release people that it could."