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How Congress can stop cruel immigration enforcement

How Congress can stop cruel immigration enforcement

Family at the border

Earlier this month, the Union for Reform Judaism joined over 200 organizations in calling on Congress to curtail funding for immigration detention and enforcement, and to enact standards to improve treatment of people in immigration detention. The letter demanded action not in the form of sweeping legislation or impassioned pleas on the Senate floor, but through the appropriations process.

The Congressional appropriations process doesn’t sound exciting. However, it may be the most powerful tool that the RAC and our coalitional partners have in the fight for immigrant justice.

What are appropriations?

Appropriations refers to the annual process by which Congress allocates federal funds to specific agencies, programs, and departments. This includes everything the government spends money on, from new airplanes to K-12 education to turtle tunnels. The House and Senate Committees on Appropriations both have 12 subcommittees, each of which works on the 12 annual appropriations bills. Congress must pass, and the president must sign, the appropriations bills by the start of each federal fiscal year, which falls on October 1. If Congress fails to pass a budget or a “continuing resolution,” which is a temporary bill to maintain the same level of federal funding as the prior fiscal year, the government shuts down.

As the House and Senate continue negotiating appropriations for fiscal year 2020, a continuing resolution that keeps the government open through the fall seems likely.

What does this have to do with immigration?

The nation’s two primary immigration enforcement agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are both part of the Department of Homeland Security – which has seen massive budget growth under the Trump administration. Funding for ICE and CBP increased by a combined $7 billion over the past three years. This is the funding that has driven the expansion of the immigrant detention system by 60 percent over the same time period, and that continues to bankroll deportations.

DHS has used a series of loopholes in the form of transfers from other programs and budgetary maneuvers to increase funding for CBP and ICE beyond the limits set by Congress. In 2018, DHS transferred $169 million from FEMA, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the Coast Guard and other programs to ICE for migrant detention and removal. Last month, the administration pulled $155 million directly from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund right before hurricane season to pay for temporary asylum-seeker courts along the southern border. The financial maneuvering is not exclusive to DHS; in May, the Department of Defense diverted $1.5 billion from programs including nuclear weapons infrastructure for the wall border at the southern border. The agencies are working in tandem to fund a punitive immigration system well beyond the limits set by Congress.

What is the RAC asking for?

Along with our coalition partners, we are asking Congress to assert its constitutionally granted “power of the purse” to block the administration from spending beyond set limits. In addition to cutting ICE and CBP budgets for migrant detention and enforcement, we are asking Congress to:

  • Eliminate DHS’s ability to transfer funds from other intradepartmental programs for detention and enforcement;
  • Deny any funding for implementation of the dangerous Migrant Protection Protocol, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which returns asylum seekers to Mexico as they await their court date, forcing already vulnerable people to return to dangerous situations instead of providing them protection and resulting in at least 140 cases of rape, kidnapping, and assault; and
  • Put in place legal guardrails that ensure humane treatment of people in ICE and CBP custody.

In the case that Congress passes a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open while it continues negotiations on the final appropriations bills, it must include provisions that limit DHS’s ability to obtain additional funding so that the agency cannot continue to expand its detention system far beyond Congressional intent.

The appropriations process is complicated, but what we are advocating for is simple: Congress must exercise its authority as a check on the power and spending of DHS. It is the financial, legislative, and, most importantly, moral obligation of Congress to limit this abuse of the federal budget for the expansion of inhumane migrant detention and enforcement.

Danny Cooper is a 2019-2020 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). He grew up in New York City, where he was a member of the Village Temple.

Danny Cooper

Published: 9/17/2019