In a year in which immigration officials in the Department of Homeland Security have warned that the country's immigration enforcement system is severely overwhelmed, it has surprised some people that the nation's largest family detention center remains well below physical capacity.
Attorneys representing clients in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, report that the detention center's population has fluctuated dramatically in recent months. The facility, the country's largest for detaining asylum-seeking and migrant families, has bed space for 2,400 people.
"We don't receive official population numbers, but we do know that the Dilley population was down at least to 300 two weeks ago, and we believe it is around 600 or 700 right now," Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, writes in an email. When asked to confirm Murdza's numbers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to Murdza's estimate of 300, but did confirm that the population in the Dilley facility was 709 people as of April 18th. On March 29th, the Washington Post reported that the Dilley population was at 1,025.
"[DHS] is doing everything we can to fulfill our humanitarian & security mission, but we are past the 'breaking point'—as [President Donald Trump] has said, our system is BROKEN. Our facilities are at peak capacity & our resources are maxed," then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted on April 1st.
Here's what you need to know to understand the contrast between the DHS's warnings and all the empty beds in Dilley.
Two Different Immigrant Detention Systems
At the end of March, then-Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan stood in front of a border barrier in El Paso, Texas, and declared that the situation on the border had reached "a breaking point." Within view of where the commissioner (who has since become acting secretary of Homeland Security) made his announcement, CBP had forced hundreds of migrant and asylum-seeking families into a fenced-in pen underneath a bridge. McAleenan explained that Border Patrol had no room in its detention facilities for them.
At the time, the Dilley detention facility had over a thousand beds available. But ICE and Border Patrol operate entirely separate detention apparatuses. When Border Patrol apprehends people crossing the border (or when asylum seekers cross legally but without papers), Border Patrol transfers them to CBP's short-term detention. These CBP-specific facilities are only made to house people for up to 72 hours before they're transferred to ICE custody.
In March, the number of people—and, in particular, the number of families—arriving on the border increased, exceeding CBP's capacities. This, in part, explains why McAleenan warned of a "breaking point" even though there were plenty of beds for detained people elsewhere in the state: CBP had indeed run out of room, even though ICE had other beds.
It's Not Just About Physical Bed Space
Having the physical space or number of beds is only part of the equation. As I reported earlier this year, when we talk about the number of "detention beds" ICE maintains, we're not just talking about mattresses. Detention takes a lot of resources: ICE needs to feed detained people, hire guards and service workers, and manage the bureaucracy.
Thus, when an ICE official says the agency is operating at capacity, or has run out of "beds," this can mean that the agency has run out of funding resources, not actual space. Currently, Congress funds ICE to detain an average daily population of 40,520 people. But that's an average: Sometimes ICE is over that number, sometimes below. So it makes sense that the population in a place like Dilley might fluctuate significantly even as the agency is at its technical limit of "beds."
Detention Is Arguably 'Arbitrary' at Times
One thing that advocates say is key to understanding ICE's capacity issues is the fact that the Trump administration has decided to detain more asylum seekers than other administrations.
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. According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ICE, under the Trump administration, has stopped following its own directive. The lawsuit notes that, from 2011 to 2013, ICE paroled 92 percent of asylum seekers. During the first six months of Donald Trump's presidency, ICE paroled just 4 percent.
In Dilley, Murdza argues that ICE has the authority to release families at the same rate they're coming in. "We are seeing 30 [to] 40 new families arrive per day, but ICE can easily release that number daily and keep the population stable," she writes.
Under federal statutes protecting the well-being of children, the government can only legally detain families with minors for 20 days. While ICE does sometimes keep families for longer, Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokesperson, states that family units in ICE custody that have passed a credible fear interview (the first step of the asylum process) are typically "released from custody in fewer than 20 days."
Because families will be released anyway, Murdza says detaining them in the first place can feel pointless. "It is frustrating how arbitrary it is that some people are detained and others aren't, some have to go through [credible fear] interviews and others don't, and that even without the interview, families are detained for that week and a half for seemingly no reason," Murdza writes, explaining that, by her estimate, families are in detention for an average of 11 days.
Trump has argued that detaining asylum seekers is necessary to ensure that they make their court dates and don't disappear into the country. But a recent American Immigration Council study of 15 years of immigration data found that 96 percent of families seeking asylum who were released from detention went on to make their court dates.