Originally published by The Daily Beast
The number of people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has hit an all-time high, according to recent statistics reviewed by The Daily Beast.
That massive increase in detentions by the highly controversial agency has prompted questions from rights groups about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) obtained the money to place into its custody 4,000 more people than Congress has funded. Earlier this year, when facing a similar shortfall, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent organization, quietly moved nearly $100 million dollars out of other areas of its budget, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, prompting an outcry from a prominent senator.
That senator, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, told The Daily Beast it was unsurprising that the Trump administration was “exceeding historic high water marks of detainees to pursue their ideologically driven policy agenda.” But Merkley, a member of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, demanded ICE account for how it had somehow found the money—something it and the Department of Homeland Security would not do in response to The Daily Beast’s questions.
“It is incredibly important that ICE explain how they’re paying for nearly 4,000 more beds. In September, when I discovered that ICE had been reprogramming FEMA dollars to pay for immigrant detention centers, I wasn’t given the information from the administration. I wasn’t given the information as a member of the Senate appropriations committee. I found the information through outside resources,” Merkley said.
“The plain fact is that the administration never wanted anyone to know how they were planning to pay to execute their plan. They used a mechanism that was never intended to see the light of day,” he added.
ICE recently reported to Congress that, as of October 20, its average daily population in detention had reached 44,631 people. The figure is not classified, but it has not been made available to the public. A congressional office confirmed it to The Daily Beast.
That’s 2,500 people more than the most recent detentions statistic ICE told The Daily Beast it had: 42,105 people locked up as of September 15. By way of contrast, in October, Customs and Border patrol arrested 28,112 people, as the Washington Post first reported—far less in a month than ICE keeps imprisoned every day.
It’s the latest milestone for detentions set during the Trump administration—which surpassed the record number of immigrants Barack Obama’s administration imprisoned. Last November, ICE’s jails held a daily average of 39,322 people. “This marks the second year in a row the U.S. government hit an unprecedented high in how many immigrants it incarcerates,” the National Immigrant Justice Center found back then, after the Immigration Legal Resource Center obtained the detentions data through Freedom of Information Act requests. Those internal records indicated that the vast majority of detainees posed no threat.
“ICE takes people from American homes and communities in early morning raids, from courtrooms and workplaces, and from the border where they arrive seeking safety and protection, and jails them thousands of miles from their lawyers and their loved ones. Inside, they suffer solitary confinement, unsafe conditions, and severe isolation,” said Heidi Altman, the National Immigration Justice Center’s policy director.
“From a moral perspective, 44,000 is an astonishing number of people to be separated from their families and communities and held within a system that DHS's own Inspector General has criticized for abusive conditions,” added the Detention Watch Network’s Mary Small.
The size of the number can obscure the experience of detention for those locked up. Several migrants, held in Texas, were separated from their children for a second time after the parents protested their jail conditions. One man held in Louisiana said ICE fed detainees food so inedible that cats wouldn’t eat it.
A woman detained for 11 months, Floricel Liborio Ramos, wrote about immigration cells so sweltering during the summer that they rendered her plastic mattress unusable. “We used to clean the floor with our sanitary towels and then sleep on the floor because it was made of concrete, and so it was colder,” she wrote. What physical relief it provided couldn’t reduce the anxiety of being separated from her children.
ICE’s two most recent submissions to Congress justifying its budgets show a vast upward trend in its detention operations. In March, that surge prompted the congressional appropriations committees to give ICE $7.1 billion, its highest budget ever, including $4.1 billion for immigrant removal and detention operations, some $401 million over the previous year.
The extra money came with an explicit warning.
From October 1, 2017 through that March, House appropriators noted, ICE “exceeded its annualized rate of funding for Custody Operations,” according to the Congressional Record. Going forward, “ICE is directed to manage its resources in a way that ensures it will not exceed the annualized rate of funding for the fiscal year.” Congress funded an average daily detention population of 40,520 people—well below the the 51,000 beds the administration requested. (ICE prefers to count detention size in terms of “beds” rather than people.)
Democrats on the House appropriations committee noted that the funding level required “ICE to reduce the number of detention beds in use between now and the end of FY [fiscal year] 2018.”
An ICE spokesperson, Danielle Bennett, acknowledged that Congress funded ICE for 40,520 average daily detainees this year, “though ICE does have the flexibility to go above that number.” Neither Bennett nor DHS answered The Daily Beast’s repeated questions about where the money for thousands more detentions every day came from.