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ICE chief tells lawmakers agency needs much more money for immigration arrests

The acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thomas D. Homan, shown after a news conference in May, testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill about his agency’s budget request. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Federal immigration arrests — already up sharply since President Trump took office — could rise dramatically next year if Congress approves the administration’s multibillion-dollar budget proposal, the nation’s top enforcement official said Tuesday.

Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill that the agency is churning out detainer requests, adding thousands of cases to its docket and deputizing an increasing number of local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal immigration law.

“If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Homan said. “You should look over your shoulder.”

House Democrats questioned the Trump administration’s plans to spend millions of dollars to lock up students and others who are in the country illegally but have not committed any crimes, including Diego Puma, a 19-year-old New York high school student who was detained last week hours before his senior prom.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) called the policy “un-American,” and Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) wondered whether ICE was focused on threats to public safety, given the recent uptick in arrests of noncriminals.

Homan said ICE still targets criminals, but he said Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order broadened the pool of immigrants who could be targeted for deportation to include 345,000 fugitives with final deportation orders and 600,000 visa overstayers — individuals who Homan said had been essentially off-limits under President Barack Obama. He said Puma and his mother had their day in immigration court and were ordered deported.

Homan’s testimony before the homeland security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee included details of how ICE carries out enforcement. Besides searching for immigrants on its own, the agency uses a fingerprint-sharing program called Secure Communities that helps alert agents when an undocumented immigrant has been arrested in connection with a state or local crime.

ICE files detainer requests with local law enforcement officials and jails, asking that they help federal agents transfer the immigrants into federal custody. Many “sanctuary cities” refuse to cooperate with such requests, in some cases because they say cooperation would make immigrants less willing to act as witnesses or report crimes.

But Homan said ICE is still trying: The number of detainers this year is up 75 percent over last year, he told lawmakers, without providing hard numbers. ICE arrests are up 38 percent.

Homan used the numbers to show that ICE can “clearly” justify the need to fund 51,000 beds in immigrant detention centers in next year’s budget, up from 34,000 beds now.

The agency is requesting a budget of $7.6 billion, a $1.2 billion increase, with total spending authority of $7.9 billion.

More than 40 local law enforcement agencies have been deputized to help ICE enforce immigration law, Homan said, and more countries are cooperating with deportations of their citizens.

Under Obama, 23 countries routinely refused to issue the travel documents that U.S. officials need to put people on airplanes and deport them to their countries of citizenship. Now, 12 are considered recalcitrant.

ICE is the Homeland Security agency that handles detentions and deportations. The Justice Department runs the immigration courts, and under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it has led the offensive against jurisdictions that refuse to detain immigrants so that ICE can take them into federal custody.

On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein testified before a Senate committee that slashing the immigration court’s “extraordinary” backlog of 600,000 cases is one of his top priorities.

He said the agency is seeking funding for 75 new judges and hundreds of support staffers.

Rosenstein said the agency will hold jurisdictions accountable if they fail to communicate with federal immigration agents. The administration sent letters to several jurisdictions this year asking them to certify by June 30 that they are in compliance with federal law. So far, New Orleans; Clark County, Nev., and Connecticut have done so.