There’s Something Missing From Immigration Enforcement Funding… And It’s an Arbitrary Number

May 12, 2017
7:50 AM

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece was published here.

Legislation for the Department of Homeland Security looks oddly different in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017. Signed into law last Friday by President Trump, this appropriations bill keeps the federal government running until September 30, 2017. A key part includes funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a department within the DHS.

More specific to that is a sentence —or lack thereof— that would have outlined information for a daily detention bed quota, which had been included in DHS appropriations since 2010. The prior Consolidated Appropriations of 2016 did have a quota for ICE: “Provided further, That funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2016.” 2016 DHS appropriations also allocated $3.218 billion for “enforcement, detention, and removal operations, including transportation of unaccompanied minor aliens.”

The detention bed quota had been standard practice since 2010, when Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia inserted the sentence “Provided further, That funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds through September 30, 2010” into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010. It funded more than $2.545 billion “for detention and removal operations, including transportation of unaccompanied minor aliens.”

Authored by House Democrat David Price (NC-4), the 2010 regulatory bill outlined spending to DHS agencies, employees, and technologies for the 2010 fiscal year. The bill passed with flying colors in both houses of Congress, ultimately signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009. Costing around $2 billion per year ($5 million a day), the quota increased by 600 since the 2013 DHS appropriations bill to 34,000 daily detention beds.

While Democrats have tried to distance themselves from the detention bed quota, Republicans strongly support such legislation, despite its controversy not only with immigrant rights groups, but also with experts in the field. Former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano provided testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in 2013: “We ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not an arbitrary number.” Plus, a 2012 Congressional Research Service study of immigrant detentions found that the number of detainees fell slightly below the per day bed requirement. Still, “the average daily detention population is closely tied to the amount of funded bedspace,” the report said.

The 2017 fiscal year report by the DHS requested funds for 30,913 detention beds and transportation costs, amounting to $1.748 billion going directly towards Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For each of the 29,953 adult beds, that costs $126.46 each day; the 960 family beds had a daily expenditure of $161.36. The DHS proposed $309 million for transportation of detainees, included in the total amount.

The recent appropriations, however, do not include a quota but instead provide money directly. That funding is over double what the DHS proposed. The 2017 appropriations bill reads, “[O]f which not less than $3,471,806,000 shall be for enforcement, detention, and removal operations, including transportation of unaccompanied minor aliens.” Federal spending on detention and deportation is nearly $254 million more than the previous year and keeps funding through September 30, 2017.

Campaign rhetoric from the current administration sought to target undocumented immigrants, but a late April court decision stymied implementation of a January 25 executive order targeting sanctuary cities. In February, DHS Secretary John Kelly issued a subsequent memorandum that expanding the profile of deportable people. Despite the court ruling against the Executive Order, this has left a void for greater discretion by ICE and Border Patrol officials.

Overall, immigration from the southern border is down significantly. That’s seen from border apprehensions. At the same time, ICE detentions between January 20 to March 13 increased to 21,362, with the number of immigrants who have no criminal records doubling to 5,441. This presents a departure from 2016 numbers of 16,104 people apprehended in the same time frame.

But this still has not translated to mass deportations like Trump promised, as reported by CNN in late April. From January 20 to April 24, ICE deported 54,564 people, less than the 62,062 during the same time last year. And in 2017, fewer non-criminals were deported than 2016, despite political rhetoric and ambiguous policy rollouts expanding the profile of deportable people.

It’s unclear how the new language in the 2017 appropriations bill fits into Trump’s campaign rhetoric or the detention bed quota. Democrats heralded the appropriations bill a victory (especially considering no funding for a border wall) yet we still don’t understand how this funding with no quota plays with regards to detention numbers by ICE and other federal immigration officials.


Eduardo Cuevas is an indebted college graduate who writes about history and politics. He hails from his Chicanx community of Salinas, California, although he went to Santa Clara University and studied history and English on indigenous burial grounds. In his spare time, he likes to ride his bike and eat his mother’s nopales.