President Trump appears to be dimly aware that he isn’t going to get the $5.7 billion he wants for his border wall. Months of rage-tweets and lies just didn’t get it done: Most reports suggest conference negotiators are converging on an agreement to spend somewhere between $1.3 billion and $2 billion on new barriers in targeted locations.
Yet a new sticking point has now arisen: a dispute over detention beds.
But Trump is lying about this issue, too. And his administration appears to be operating in bad faith in a manner that renders a reasonable compromise less likely.
The core dispute is this: Democrats want to cap the number of beds available to detain undocumented immigrants rounded up in the interior at 16,500. Trump and Republicans claim this would result in the failure to detain “violent” offenders. Democrats say it would force Immigration and Customs Enforcement to choose among who is picked up from the interior, meaning they’d focus more on violent offenders, resulting in fewer detentions of nonviolent longtime residents.
To understand this dispute, we need to step back. As of Sunday, according to an ICE official, there were more than 48,000 people in ICE detention. They break down roughly into two categories: those rounded up in the interior, and those picked up crossing the border (this second group is made up of further categories, such as illegal crossers and those seeking asylum).
The primary dispute right now concerns the first group: those rounded up in the interior.
According to a House Democratic aide, ICE has told members of the conference committee that as of early February, there were just over 20,000 such people in detention.
Thus, by proposing to cap the beds for those people at 16,500, Democrats do want to reduce the numbers detained from the interior. The rub is that this would force ICE to prioritize violent offenders and reduce detentions of nonviolent ones.
Trump is lying about this dispute
Trump cannot allow the dispute to be perceived as one over whether to dial down the rounding up of nonviolent longtime residents — who are often sympathetic figures.
So Trump has hit on a new way around this problem. Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that Democrats “all of a sudden” have declared that they “don’t even want to take murderers into custody.”
Moments ago, Trump raged: “The Democrats don’t want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!”
The idea that this represents a “new” demand is a lie. The call for a 16,500 cap on detention beds was in the original Democratic offer made in these talks over 10 days ago. That Jan. 31st offer explicitly includes a provision that “statutorily limits” the daily population of people detained from the interior at 16,500 by the end of the next fiscal year, phasing it in over time.
So this isn’t “new” at all. If anything, what’s “new” is the Trump/GOP objection to this.
The administration appears to be operating in bad faith
What about Trump’s claim that in pushing for this, Democrats oppose rounding up violent “criminal aliens” and “murderers? This one looks to be based on bad faith.
The core question turns on who makes up that population of people detained from the interior — how many tend to be a real public safety threat? Trump and Republicans need to keep the answer to this question obscured.
According to a House Democratic aide, Democrats on the conference committee asked ICE for a breakdown of the current 20,000 or so in custody — how many are dangerous criminals, and how many are merely longtime residents with no criminal record or who have committed minor infractions, like traffic violations?
The aide tells me that ICE is refusing to answer that question. “We have sought a breakdown of how many people in interior enforcement detention are actually dangerous, but they simply won’t engage in constructively answering,” the aide said.
Instead, the aide noted, ICE has responded by saying, in essence, that there’s no point in breaking down those detained, because “they’re all dangerous,” as the aide put it. “They want us to believe that people with minor traffic violations are dangerous criminals who should be deported,” the aide says.
Democrats are asking the administration to justify their demand for more detention beds, and say they’re getting nothing serious back. A spokesperson for DHS didn’t immediately return an email for comment.
This feeds into a much bigger dispute
Where did Democrats get the 16,500 number as their preferred cap? It is based on the number of people detained from the interior at the end of the Obama administration. Thus, it’s designed to try to restore the priorities of former president Barack Obama, who deprioritized the removal of longtime residents and instead focused enforcement resources on removing criminals and public safety threats. Trump canceled those Obama priorities.
This gets at the much bigger argument here: Democrats don’t want to deport longtime residents and want to refocus resources away from that. Trump and Republicans do want to deport as many from the interior as possible, with no regard to their status.
The bottom line is that Trump and top adviser Stephen Miller want fewer immigrants in the United States. That’s why they want cuts to legal immigration, restrictions on asylum seeking, slashed refugee flows and (as we’re discussing now) a much broader deportation dragnet.
By contrast, the core trade-off that Democrats seek would give Trump some of the barriers he wants, in exchange for edging the overall system in a more humane direction. Thus, their blueprint also includes $500 million to address the humanitarian plight of migrant families at the border — and the effort to cap detention beds to limit deportations of longtime residents. That’s a reasonable compromise — both sides get something.
But Trump cannot accept such an outcome. And so, when he speaks in El Paso on Monday afternoon, Trump will repeat numerous claims about the supposed criminality of the undocumented population, something he lies about constantly, most recently in his State of the Union address. Now he’ll be reviving those lies to justify his opposition to fewer detention beds.
But Trump has lost this bigger argument. Polls show large majorities don’t want mass deportations, and instead want longtime immigrant residents to be provided a path to legalization. In short, most Americans think they should stay. Trump’s lies about the wall and about undocumented immigrants have failed him.
Update: To clarify, Democrats are proposing to limit the overall number of detention beds to 35,000 over time. That would include people picked up in the interior and at the border. The Democrats’ proposed 16,500 cap would only apply to detention beds for those picked up in the interior -- not to beds for those picked up at the border -- and it’s this 16,500 number that’s really at the core of the latest standoff.