Detaining to Quota: The Detention Bed Mandate

Since 2010, every Congressional appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security has included the following language: “That funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” The number has varied slightly, but the implications have not; while this language seems innocuous, it means that Congress has mandated immigration authorities to meet a quota of detainees in custody each night.

As NPR put it, “Imagine your city council telling the police department how many people it had to keep in jail each night. That’s effectively what Congress has told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has referred to the mandate as “artificial,” telling a House committee last year that the Department “ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not to an arbitrary number.” And as illegal crossings have decreased, meeting this quota has prompted immigration authorities to reach “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 after traffic stops by local police.” The effect on immigrant communities has been extremely detrimental.

The language from the 2009 appropriations bill has been reinserted each year. Congressmen Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Bill Foster (D-IL) have led the effort to repeal the quota, introducing amendments to the FY 2014 Appropriations Bill that would have repealed the bed mandate in June and again in January. (The June amendment failed to pass the House; the January amendment was never voted on.)

In its budget proposal earlier this year, the Obama Administration’s budget theoretically maintained the quota, but at a slightly lower level—30,500. However, the Administration’s budget justification document states that the “number of beds maintained should be based on actual need,” and in March, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson stated at a hearing that he viewed the quota as requirement to “maintain the capability for 34,000 detainees,” rather than a mandate to actually maintain those detainees at any one time. And in April, the Office of Management and Budget indicated that the new budget does not mandate filled beds, instead only using them “based on actual demand.”

This represents significant progress from the Administration’s end, but ultimately only Congress has the authority to determine the fate of the bed mandate. In recent weeks, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act (H.R.4620), which, among other provisions, requires that the number of detention beds maintained be based solely on detention needs, not an artificial mandate. And as we approach ‘appropriations season’ in Congress, this provision remains a crucial one to keep our eye on.

As Jews, we are concerned about the fate of both the immigrant and the detainee. The detention bed mandate unduly increases the number of detainees and puts immoral pressure on immigrant communities. Stay tuned for more information about how you can help eliminate the detention bed mandate!

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Charlie Arnowitz

About Charlie Arnowitz

Charlie Arnowitz is a Legislative Assistant at the RAC, responsible for civil rights, immigration, and healthcare issues. He is a native of Highland Park, IL and a 2013 graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College.

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