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Federal Government Is Running Out of Funds to Detain Illegal Immigrants

14 Oct

The Department of Homeland Security is a month away from running out of money to detain illegal immigrants—a fresh sign of federal budget dysfunction emerging less than two weeks after Congress funded the government through early December.

Homeland Security officials plan to ask the White House for a quick transfer of funds to enable them to continue to detain undocumented immigrants, according to officials familiar with the discussions. If they don’t get more money by early November, officials will be forced to stop holding newly captured illegal immigrants, including high-priority arrests at the border, the officials said.

The shortfall has caught the Obama administration by surprise, coming so soon after Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the government operating through Dec. 9, though congressional Republicans have long warned that the White House wasn’t budgeting enough money to detain illegal immigrants. The short-term measure passed in September aims only to maintain funding at previous levels, which has turned out to be far short of the money needed to handle a new influx of undocumented people entering the U.S.

“Across the southwest border, we’ve seen a recent uptick in the number of apprehensions,” said a senior official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency within DHS that detains immigrants awaiting possible deportation. “We are growing our [detention] capacity but there is going to be a cost associated with that.”

DHS officials now see an immediate $136 million shortfall to pay for detention beds and nondetention monitoring of illegal immigration, according to officials briefed on the problem. And that is just the short-term budget hit. In 2017, immigration officials expect they will need significantly more money to detain people awaiting deportation.

ICE officials attribute the budget crunch in part to an influx of Haitian immigrants entering along the U.S. border with Mexico. Thousands of Haitians left that country following a massive earthquake in 2010, with many of them heading to Brazil. Now, they are moving through South and Central America to try to get into the U.S., officials said.

The U.S. government said last month that it would end a policy, in place since the 2010 earthquake, of not seeking speedy deportations for undocumented Haitians. Typically, detainees from countries other than Mexico spend longer in detention as their cases are adjudicated, according to officials.

It’s unclear how much the recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti will again slow U.S. deportations to that country, or lead to more attempts by people there to enter the U.S.

In March, an ICE official told a congressional budget panel that he expected his agency would, on average, detain about 31,000 people, if not fewer, over the rest of the year.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the number of people detained rose sharply, and the agency projects they will have roughly 42,000 people in detention by the end of this month, according to officials briefed on the matter. The senior ICE official said the turning point came in September, and the March estimate was the best possible one based on the information available at the time.

This person said the agency doesn’t “have control or visibility on what’s happening at the ports,” where Customs and Border Protection is charged with apprehending undocumented immigrants.

Complicating the situation are long-running backlogs of cases before immigration courts, which are operated by the Justice Department. Cases of people in custody get priority before those courts, but there are still significant delays, officials said.

The political calendar also is working against the government when it comes to the detention-bed problem. Lawmakers will spend the next weeks campaigning furiously for their own re-election or the election of others. That means Congress is ill-equipped to give DHS a quick cash infusion. Instead, DHS officials hope to get White House approval to divert money from elsewhere in the federal budget to cover the funding gap.

A Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman said, “Funding immigration enforcement has been and will continue to be a priority for the committee.”

It isn’t just detention beds that are busting the budget. Nondetention monitoring of illegal immigrants, billed as a cost-saving alternative to locking people up, is facing cost overruns, officials said. In the 2016 budget year, the number of people subject to such monitoring more than doubled, and is now more than 60,000. Officials briefed on the problem say monitoring costs will run $12 million over budget in the next two months.

In the meantime, ICE officials are scrambling to identify new facilities where they can detain the new influx of immigrants.