ICE under fire for detaining too few immigrants

Saldaña answers questions about the 34,000 bed mandate at a budget hearing.

Saldaña answers questions about the 34,000 bed mandate at a budget hearing.

By Joanne Faryon | inewsource

A Texas congressman is accusing federal immigration officials of not enforcing the law by failing to fill the country’s 34,000 detention beds.

Republican Rep. John Culberson made the comments during a budget subcommittee hearing Wednesday. An inewsource report last week found the number of immigrant detainees to be the lowest in nearly a decade.

Republican Rep. John Culberson

Republican Rep. John Culberson

Immigrant detention centers hold non-American citizens who are facing deportation for various reasons, including committing a crime or being in the country illegally.

The latest federal government figures show the average daily detainee population for the first five months of fiscal 2015 was 26,374. Last year, an average of more than 33,000 people were being held on a daily basis, and since 2007, the number has always been more than 30,000.

“(Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Director (Sarah) Saldaña confirmed today that ICE will not use the 34,000 detention beds as the law requires,” Culberson wrote in a statement Thursday to inewsource.

“As I told Director Saldaña today, when something says ‘shall’ it’s not optional,” Culberson wrote.

Average daily detainee population, 2005-2015. Graph by Leo Castaneda

Average daily detainee population, 2005-2015. Graph by Leo Castaneda

A line in a federal law says ICE shall maintain 34,000 detention beds across the country at a cost of more than $2 billion a year. The question is whether those beds need to have people in them. In the past, other high-ranking ICE officials have interpreted the figure to be a quota.

In a tense exchange during the committee hearing, Saldaña said that while ICE was required to have 34,000 beds “available,” the agency wasn’t required to fill them.

“We don’t detain people just for the heck of it,” Saldaña told the committee.

“We detain people based on what the law tells us and that is: Is this person a flight risk and is this person a threat to public safety?” she said.

Culberson replied that he was confident ICE could “find another 9,000 criminal aliens that needed to be detained to fill those beds in a heart beat.”

Underlying all of this is politics. Some Republicans, including Culberson, claim President Barack Obama has overstepped his authority through a series of executive actions relating to immigration. Among them, is telling ICE officials to focus on detaining and deporting immigrants who are a security threat or have gang ties, rather than all immigrants in the country illegally.

Under the president’s order, people who are in the country illegally, who have never committed a serious crime and who haven’t ignored previous deportation orders “will not be priorities for removal.”

You can watch the full exchange between Saldaña and Culberson here at the 1:41:06 mark.

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About Joanne Faryon:

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.
 
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