Monday | July 24, 2017
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Controversial quota drives immigration detention boom

KARNES CITY, Texas — In the past five years, Homeland Security officials have jailed record numbers of immigrants, driven by a little-known congressional directive known on Capitol Hill as the “bed mandate.”

The policy requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to keep an average of 34,000 detainees per day in its custody, a quota that has steadily risen since it was established in 2006 by conservative lawmakers who insisted that the agency wasn’t doing enough to deport unlawful immigrants.

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 following traffic stops by local police.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials say they are not needlessly jailing immigrants to meet a quota, and 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. Many are eventually allowed to remain in the United States by immigration judges, but 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.

“This place is great,” said one young man from Honduras, strumming a government-issued bass guitar in a recreation room, along with newfound band mates from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Most detainees here are Central American migrants picked up along the border. Having requested asylum, they await an interview by ICE to determine if they have a legitimate fear of returning home.

In the meantime, they can earn $3 a day working on cleaning crews or in the laundry room, and there are free English classes, “life skills” instruction and tutorials in Microsoft Word and Excel. They dine in a cafeteria cheerfully appointed with Southwestern art and suggestive Georgia O’Keefe prints.

The jail has become a showcase for improved detention conditions, especially as ICE relies less on the low-cost bed space offered by aging, rural county jails and signs contacts with for-profit private detention companies that include incentives such as guaranteed minimum-occupancy payments.

Congress’s expanding detention goals have been a boon to the contractors, especially Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America.

The two companies have won hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ICE contracts in recent years while lobbying Congress on immigration enforcement issues.

Former ICE director Julie Myers Wood, who led the agency from 2006 to 2008 under President George W. Bush, said a congressional mandate for ICE to main