Immigrant advocates are questioning President Joe Biden’s proposal to fund U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement at levels similar to the current year despite plans to narrow agency enforcement efforts and reduce detention.
Under Biden’s fiscal 2022 proposal, ICE would get $7.9 billion, more than half of which would go toward detention and deportation of immigrants — a proportion similar to fiscal 2021.
“We’re surprised and alarmed by the budget,” said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center, criticizing the focus on “enforcement-centered policies.”
The Biden administration early on took steps to shift ICE enforcement away from the hard-line policies of the Trump era. Under interim guidance, the Homeland Security agency is mostly limiting enforcement actions, including arrests and deportations, to immigrants who fall under one of three categories: suspected terrorists and threats to national security, individuals with aggravated felony convictions or gang ties, and migrants who crossed the border after Nov. 1, 2020.
That’s why a budget proposal maintaining Trump-era funding levels for ICE enforcement and detention would be “unacceptable,” said Gabriela Viera, advocacy manager at Detention Watch Network, which opposes the use of immigration detention.
“People should be able to navigate their immigration cases with their loved ones and not fear the violent overpolicing of their communities or the threat of immigration jail and ultimate deportation,” she told reporters during a recent call.
ICE budget documents project the agency will deport around 167,000 immigrants in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, compared with the 185,884 deported in 2020 and 267,258 in 2019.
Randy Capps, research director for U.S. programs at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said the Biden administration’s enforcement directive, while narrower, could involve more resources per enforcement action.
“It takes more manpower, resources and costs more to find and arrest people who are more serious criminals than it does to cast a wide net and pull in people sort of willy-nilly,” he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas echoed that sentiment at a May 26 congressional hearing, arguing that “smart and effective law enforcement is not to be measured quantitatively, it is to be measured qualitatively” in response to questions about lower ICE arrest numbers.
An ICE spokesperson said the budget “directs ICE resources toward protecting civil rights, prioritizing enforcement efforts for those who pose a threat to national security and public safety and for recent border crossers, and continuing our work to restore much needed order and humanity to our immigration system.”
The agency’s proposed funding would also allow for the detention of 30,000 adults daily, down from 31,500 in fiscal 2021. There were 23,107 adults being detained as of May 28, according to ICE data.
“Surging migrant patterns along the Southwest Border have recently increased, and ICE must remain flexible in its detention bed portfolio,” the agency said in its budget justification.
ICE may need added bed space if the administration lifts Title 42, the Trump-era public health directive under which single adults and some families are turned away at the border.
Many arriving migrants are from Central America, not Mexico, which means they cannot be deported immediately and are more likely to enter the ICE detention system.
“They’re not just Central Americans, but increasing numbers of apprehensions from other world regions — and you can’t deport them quickly,” Capps said.
But advocates want to see a reduced overall reliance on detention, particularly for migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and have not committed a crime. Roughly 75 percent of people currently detained by ICE do not have a criminal record, according to the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which compiles immigration data.
Mayorkas told a House Appropriations subcommittee he was “concerned about the overuse of detention,” and his department has taken steps to close detention facilities that have been investigated for violating the rights of detainees.
The White House budget proposal includes $5 million to finance a pilot program exploring “alternatives to detention” for immigrants fighting deportation, which would go to nonprofits and local governments providing case management services. The ICE spokesperson said the proposal would shift some detention bed funds to cover processing for enrollment into that program.
But Altman would like to see alternatives to detention funded more broadly throughout the budget.
“That means a dramatic reduction in the use of detention for migration policy, and instead really smart investments in community-based organizations who are at the ready and already doing the work of supporting and welcoming immigrants in our communities,” she said.