Monday, June 1, 2009

Obama's "Era of Responsibility" for Border Security and Immigration

(The first in a series of articles on the boom in federal spending for border security and immigration enforcement.) The Obama administration has promised a new “era of responsibility” in Washington. New “fiscal responsibility,” promises the administration’s budget director, will cut the budget deficit by the of Obama’s first term. But this fiscal responsibility is difficult to detect along the Southwestern border or in the ever-expanding archipelago of immigrant prison towns. At the Department of Homeland Security, the 2010 budget is increasing by 6%, while its Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be rising by at 11% -- that’s before Senate and House Democrats pass their own budget resolutions with promised additional increases for border security and immigration enforcement. Similarly at the Department of Justice, the immigration-related and border security budgets are overflowing with new federal funding. At a time when other industries are stagnating or sliding into bankruptcy, industries and economic sectors dedicated to border security and immigrant imprisonment are benefiting from generous flows of federal appropriations. Rather than using the economic downturn as an opportunity to reevaluate the cost-effectiveness and social impact of the border security and immigrant enforcement initiatives of the Bush administration, the Obama administration has, for the most part, increased the funding for these initiatives and reinforced them with its own directives. More Detention Beds While most public and media attention on immigration and border security has focused on DHS, the Justice Department is another font of federal funding for border security and enforcement initiatives. The home of the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service, DOJ lost of the government’s border control and immigration enforcement agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Bush administration created the new monster federal bureaucracy, DHS. But, increasingly, DOJ is assuming an increasing role in border control and immigration enforcement. Through its Southwest Border Enforcement Initiative, for example, DOJ is playing a central role in the Obama administration’s Border Security Initiative. DOJ is also playing a rising role in immigrant detention as a result of new policy initiatives that criminalize illegal border crossing and broaden the definition of “criminal aliens.” One DOJ organization that has been called upon to participate in the immigrant crackdown is the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee (OFDT), which opened shop in September 2001 as the result of a congressional initiative that aimed to establish a coordinating office – to “avoid duplication” -- for all federal detention (immigrant and citizen) under DOJ. However, after the creation of DHS in March 2003 the new department refused to have its immigrant detention program coordinated by the DOJ, creating resentment within OFDT and leading to the sprawling and uncoordinated cross-departmental federal detention complex. As it turns out, though, immigrants are the driving force behind the expansion of DOJ’s own detention complex. At a time when falling crime rates have caused nonimmigrant federal detentions to plateau or fall, federal prison beds are being occupied by immigrants. So many immigrants are being channeled into the prisons of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) – both DOJ agencies – that the OFDT trustee is seeking more federal funding, explicitly for immigrants. It’s all interrelated, as OFDT explains in its 2010 budget proposal. “The implementation of the Department of Homeland Security’s zero tolerance initiative, Operation Streamline, has substantially increased the number of immigration-related bookings at the Southwest Border,” says OFDT. OFDT notes that it “routinely anticipates growth in bookings for immigration offenses,” but “the growth observed since December 2005 has been unprecedented, based on trends in historical data.” As part of the president’s 2010 budget request, OFT is asking for an 11% increase in its $1.4 billion annual budget. Immigrant detainees are overwhelming OFDT’s capacity. In September 2008, immigrants composed 44% of all USMS detainees. In other words, nearly half of all the pre-trial detainees handled by U.S. Marshals were immigrants last year. If trends continue, as they are likely to do given the Bush-Obama continuity in immigration enforcement, then more than half of the detainees shackled by USMS will be immigrants. OFDT is having a hard time keeping up with the immigrant crackdown. In its 2009 budget it had projected 70,000 bookings for immigration offenses – a 13% increase over 2007. But if immigrant bookings continue at the current rate, OFDT projects that the number of immigrants booked in 2009 will be 96,000 – 26,000 more than it had projected in its budget request. OFDT says it needs a $44.6 million increase to “accommodate” the joint DHS/DOJ Southwest Border and Immigration Enforcement programs. “This program increase will support detention housing for an additional 7,000 immigration offenders apprehended by the DHS and processed by the USMS,” explains OFDT. In addition, ODFT is asking for a $95.8 million increase to sustain the USMS detention system’s operating costs, which will be strained in 2010 by “the increased costs associated with these law enforcement activities along with anticipated increases in per diem rates, medical hospital service costs, and fuel prices.” Border security and immigration enforcement have trumped fiscal responsibility at DOJ. Overall, DOJ is proposing, according to the Federal Times, a $1 billion budget increase for fiscal 2010 would help pay for 1,187 new agents and attorneys to help secure the Southwest border against drug smuggling and other criminal activity. At a time when the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform look dubious at best, the DOJ budget includes funding for what it calls “a comprehensive approach to enforcement along the Nation's borders.” This new comprehensive approach “combines law enforcement and prosecutorial component efforts to investigate, arrest, detain, and prosecute illegal immigrants and other criminals.” DHS Detention Adviser Says More Beds Dora Schriro, the new DHS special advisor on detention, isn’t talking fiscal responsibility. Rather, she told the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, that more money is needed for detention. Neither party is objecting that additional detention costs for immigrants will further overburden U.S. taxpayers. Schriro, who Napolitano appointed to advise her on detention and removal operations (DRO), told the House members, “DRO is likely to get larger and may cost more in the immediate future.” According to Schriro, ICE has “an average daily census approaching 33,400 detainees and an end-of-year count exceeding 400,000.” ICE plans to increase its detention capacity by 1,400 beds during FY 2009 and is seeking funding to add about 1,000 beds in FY 2010. It is also in the process of renegotiating inter-agency service agreements with the 100 largest state and local facilities with which it contracts. With no argument from either Democrats or Republicans, Schriro closed her testimony asserting, “We all recognize more than that needs to occur.” When it comes to the priority issues of border security and immigration enforcement, fiscal responsiblity apparently does not apply.
Photo: GEO's Val Verde Detention Center for immigrants in Del Rio, Texas

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