But as illegal crossings from Mexico have fallen to near their lowest levels since the early 1970s, ICE has been meeting Congress’s immigration detention goals by reaching deeper into the criminal justice system to vacuum up foreign-born, legal U.S. residents convicted of any crimes that could render them eligible for deportation. The agency also has greatly expanded the number of undocumented immigrants it takes into custody after traffic stops by local police.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials say that they are not needlessly jailing immigrants to meet a quota and that they find plenty of candidates for detention and deportation by targeting criminals who pose a threat to public safety and border security.
But critics of the mandate note that the majority of ICE detainees are not violent offenders. Immigration judges eventually allow many to remain in the United States, but the detainees may spend months in costly federal custody, even when far cheaper alternatives are available, such as ankle bracelets and other forms of electronic monitoring.
With federal spending on immigration detention and deportation reaching $2.8 billion a year, more than doubling since 2006, the mandate has met growing skepticism from budget hawks in both parties, particularly after DHS officials told Congress during the “sequestration” debate in April that the agency could save money by lowering the bed mandate to 31,800 and relying on cheaper alternatives to jails. But House Republicans successfully pushed back, set the mandate at 34,000 detainees and ordered ICE officials to spend nearly $400 million more than they requested.
ICE operations are largely unaffected by the government shutdown, since the agency’s workers are among the federal employees considered essential, DHS officials have said.
Some of the additional money provided by Congress will be spent filling beds at places such as the brightly painted Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened here last year amid bobbing oil derricks on the rolling plains south of San Antonio. It holds more than 600 detainees, but ICE prefers not to call them that.
They are “residents,” guarded by unarmed “resident advisers,” and they sleep in air-conditioned, unlocked “suites” with flat-screen TVs overlooking volleyball courts and soccer fields. The low-security facility, built and operated on the government’s behalf by a private contractor, the GEO Group, offers computer labs, libraries and microwaves for making popcorn.