The record number of immigrants in the custody of US immigration officials, and a request by the Trump administration to further increase detention levels, is unnecessary and a result of misguided policy, said a former senior US immigration official who oversaw detention reforms.
More than 48,000 immigrants were in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement as of Sunday, according to the agency, a dramatic increase from the Obama era that experts say is a consequence of the Trump administration’s decision to expand arrest priorities to include nearly every undocumented immigrant.
Kevin Landy, who was appointed during the Obama administration to head ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning, said a cap on immigrant detentions floated by Democrats was appropriate.
“This record high number results entirely from the draconian enforcement policies of the Trump Administration,” Landy told BuzzFeed News.
His comments come as Democrats and Republicans have reportedly hit a snag in discussions to fund the federal government over a proposal by progressives to include a cap of 16,500 individuals apprehended and held by ICE. The federal agency currently has around 20,000 to 22,000 individuals in custody away from the border, officials say.
The Trump administration has called for an increase in funding to accommodate 52,000 detention beds while the proposal from Democrats would allow for around 35,000 — a number that includes, but would not cap, those transferred from US Customs and Border Protection custody to ICE, according to a plan released at the end of January.
The debate over detention funding highlights key differences in immigration enforcement policy between the two sides that could lead to yet another partial government shutdown if a deal is not reached by Friday.
“The Obama Administration conducted effective enforcement with approximately 35,000 beds,” said Landy, who left ICE in 2017. “This number would still be sufficient if Trump's White House were willing to focus its enforcement efforts on people with more serious criminal convictions and people apprehended at the border.”
Matthew Albence, acting deputy director of ICE, said in a media call organized by the White House on Monday that a cap would be “extremely damaging to public safety in the country” and would force ICE to immediately “release criminal aliens,” including those convicted of domestic violence crimes.
Albence said Democrats were asking the agency to ignore immigration laws passed by Congress and warned that a maximum number of beds for detained immigrants “will lead to disastrous results.”
And Trump blamed Democrats for the dispute, tweeting, “The Democrats do not want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!”
Landy disagreed, saying that the cap requested by Democrats appeared reasonable.
“A comparison of ICE data under the two administrations suggests to me that ICE could meet a cap of 16,500 ICE-arrested detainees without any possibility that felons or other serious criminals would have to be released,” he said.
Democrats said the number matched figures seen during the final months of the Obama administration, which focused arrests on serious criminals or recent immigration offenders. The Trump administration, however, expanded the priority list to include nearly every person who entered the country illegally.
In the meantime, the portion of convicted criminals arrested by ICE has dropped from 86% in the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration to 66% last year, while overall arrests have gone up.
ICE detentions jumped this past year to record levels. As of Feb. 10, more than 48,000 individuals were in ICE custody and the agency was holding an average daily population of 45,000 — 5,000 more than Congress had provided funding.
The jump in detentions correlates to the expansion of priorities under the Trump administration, said Tracey Valerio, the former budget director at ICE and current senior counsel at Frontier Solutions.
“It climbed immediately,” she said.
The administration’s decision to reverse an Obama-era policy to release those with credible asylum claims into the US has also caused the detained population to swell, Landy noted.
Valerio, who left ICE last year, said there needed to be more focus on helping immigrants quickly get their cases through the court system, rather than waiting for years in ICE custody.
“The number [of people in detention] could swell indefinitely,” she said. “It seems hard to imagine that it continues to increase without figuring out a way to get cases adjudicated more swiftly through the system, otherwise individuals are in custody at great expense to American taxpayers.”