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Why ‘Detention Beds’ Complicate the U.S. Border Debate

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Why ‘Detention Beds’ Complicate the U.S. Border Debate

Negotiators Have Tentative Border Deal

First came the wall. Then U.S. leaders trying to avert another government shutdown got hung up on beds. At issue was how many people can be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency in charge of carrying out President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. A late deal by lawmakers may have bridged the impasse, reducing the risk that funding for some federal departments -- including the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE -- would once again lapse.

1. What are detention beds?

It’s shorthand for the capacity of the various facilities in which the U.S. government detains noncitizens facing matters in immigration court. In recent years, the average daily detention population has exceeded the number of funded beds. It costs about $160 per night for each person in ICE custody, which is higher than the cost to care for the regular prison population.

2. How many beds are there?

There are currently 40,520 ICE immigration detention beds funded by Congress; that’s up from 21,100 in 2002 and 34,000 beds in 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the number of detainees on any given day can be much higher than that -- 49,057 on Feb. 6, for instance, according to the Washington Post, which cited statistics released by Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat. The average daily detention population hit a record high in 2018 -- 44,631 people a day, according to The Daily Beast. Lawmakers and immigration activists have criticized ICE for redirecting money from other sources to fund the uptick in detentions.

3. What’s the disagreement?

The number of beds has come up throughout the multimonth fight over spending on homeland security and emerged as one of the final sticking points after most other issues were close to being finalized. The White House had sought to increase the number of beds to 52,000, while Democrats were pushing for a decrease to 35,520 for the rest of this fiscal year, with 1,250 of that total designated for family detention and phased out by next year. Under a tentative deal reached by congressional negotiators, the average daily cap would be 45,274 beds, including 2,500 for families. But Trump would retain authority to expand the number of beds by transferring money from other security accounts.

4. Why do the numbers matter?

For Democrats, capping the number of detention beds is a way to limit how many noncitizens get swept up by law enforcement under Trump’s souped-up effort to find and detain people who are in the U.S. without proper authorization. Immigration advocates have been sounding the alarm about ICE raids that target people who entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa but are otherwise working and contributing to their communities. “A cap on ICE detention beds will force the Trump administration to prioritize deportation for criminals and people who pose real security threats, not law-abiding immigrants who are contributing to our country,” said Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat who leads the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Republicans have accused Democrats, in raising the issue of detention beds, of introducing a “poison pill” that would doom the chances of getting a deal Trump will sign.

5. Who gets put in detention?

Since the 1980s, Congress has required that noncitizens waiting to seek asylum, or fight deportation, before an immigration judge must be detained if they’ve been convicted of certain serious crimes. After being expanded repeatedly, that list of crimes now ranges from murder and rape to battery, fraud, even filing a false tax return. This is why Trump and his supporters say fewer beds means criminals on the streets. "Donald Trump is not going to sign any bill that reduces the number of bed spaces available to hold violent offenders," Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, said on Fox News on Sunday. On the other hand, undocumented aliens who have not been accused of any crimes are also among those detained, though they also can be paroled or released on bond. This is why Trump’s critics can say that for most detained immigrants, "their only crime is being undocumented."

6. Where are all these beds?

The ICE website maps 71 detention facilities across the U.S., but detainees are also held at local jails, federal prisons, immigration processing centers -- even at hotels, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center. According to the Migration Policy Institute, almost 75 percent of immigration detainees were held in facilities operated by private prison companies on a typical day in August 2016. The Associated Press reported last year that ICE pays private companies to hold about two-thirds of those detained for being in the country illegally, with the largest part of that business contracted to CoreCivic Inc. and GEO Group. More than a year ago, ICE announced plans for more detention centers in Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Kathleen Hunter, Grant Clark, Steven T. Dennis, and Erik Wasson