White House

Trump’s tough stand on immigrant detention will cost taxpayers big

Protesters denounce President Donald Trump's immigration orders in Janesville, Wis.
Protesters denounce President Donald Trump's immigration orders in Janesville, Wis. AP

In his first week on the job, President Donald Trump launched an ambitious plan to ratchet up immigration enforcement.

But while there’s been much discussion about the cost of building a wall along the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico, there’s been almost none about the financial impact of his proposed end to the so-called “catch and release” policy, which would require those here illegally to remain in custody until they get their days in court.

That program will require Trump to double or triple the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s $2.2 billion detention budget, according to calculations by McClatchy. The additional money would go to build and staff more jails.

“You’re talking billions of dollars,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. “Americans have swallowed a lot in terms of immigration enforcement since 9/11. The issue for the Trump administration is that they’re also trying to reduce the deficit. It’s very difficult to both reduce the deficit and have a huge expansion of immigration machinery.”

Trump has rolled out a series of directives aimed at reducing the number of foreigners living illegally in the United States, estimated at 11 million. Those plans include building the border wall and adding 5,000 Border Patrol officers, both of which will cost money.

Ending “catch and release” also presents a legal challenge. Federal courts have stepped in to limit long detentions for immigration violations. Based on a 2001 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security agency that is responsible for enforcing immigration laws, must deport or release immigrants within six months after their cases are decided. Immigration lawyers say that deadline is routinely missed.

Moreover, a 2015 federal court ruling limits the detention of children and parents to just 20 days, hardly enough time to resolve an immigration case.

Detaining thousands more people will only exacerbate an already long backlog of hundreds of thousands who are awaiting cases in immigration court.

Trump has portrayed his immigration orders as a national security issue to stop the flow of drugs, crime and illegal immigrants into the United States. “We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States,” Trump told a crowd of DHS employees following the release of the order. “Beginning today, the United States gets control of its borders.”

But it will take more than strong words. Trump will need Congress to open up America’s wallet.

The anticipated costs to revamp the immigration system are already in the billions. The wall will cost $8 billion to $10 billion or perhaps much more. Hiring new immigration agents will cost more billions. The DHS’s 2017 budget request sought $7 billion to pay more than 40,000 officers.

Trump has received the backing of key lawmakers like House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who called the border wall a “national security issue.”

Determining the total cost of detaining everyone suspected of violating immigration laws is complex.

The DHS apprehended 400,000 people last year, but not all of those were held for long periods. Many were immediately removed. Estimates are that the number of people detained at one time might total 80,000.

“A 2,000-person facility within our existing system is a huge facility. It would take 36 of those to get you close to that estimate,” said Mary Small, policy director at the Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group. “And that’s if you were only talking about what are considered massive facilities within our system.”

The calculations are based on current budget appropriations, congressional estimates and interviews with former administration officials and experts who have studied the order and are familiar with the complex U.S immigration system.

In Gary, Indiana, city leaders considered allowing an $80 million, 800-bed detention center to be built on 24 acres across from the airport. It would take 90 such facilities to have enough bed space. Even if the government, built just 12 more like it, that would cost another $1 billion.

Trump has already taken steps to free up jail space to detain and deport thousands more people. Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed a contract late last year to convert a 1,116-bed correction facility in Cibola County, New Mexico, to an immigration detention center. ICE recently extended a contract with Corrections Corp. of America, now known as CoreCivic Co., for a 2,400-bed facility in Texas. It’s also in the process of converting a jail in Youngstown, Ohio.

In his executive order, the president dismissed the idea of any protected classes of immigrants and expanded the definition of who is considered a criminal to include not only those who have been convicted of a crime but those who have been charged or even thought to have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”

Last month, the U.S. immigration courts announced they would concentrate on having faster deportation hearings for immigrants held by the federal government.

But the idea of detaining more immigrants has sparked fears that the immigration court system, already balky, will grind to a halt. Currently, the country-wide U.S. immigration court system, which handles most immigrant deportation proceedings, has a backlog of more than 533,000 cases and the average wait time for a hearing is about two years, according to data from TRAC, a Syracuse University program that collects data from the government’s internal databases.

The need for detention facilities has been greeted as an opportunity by private prison companies. After Trump was elected, Florida-based GEO Group saw its shares jump 21 percent. Another big private prison company, CoreCivic Co., has seen its shares rise 43 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.

Damon Hininger, president and CEO of CoreCivic Co., said in an earnings call Thursday that Trump’s order immediately allocated resources to the construction, operation and control of additional detention facilities.

“When coupled with the above-average rate crossings along the Southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available in our existing real estate portfolio, as well as an increased demand for our detention facility design, development and facility maintenance expertise,” Hininger said.

Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for Geo in Boca Raton, Florida, said the company couldn’t speculate about future policy initiatives but that it looked forward to working with the new administration.

Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute noted that the Obama administration had been moving away from the private prisons. As a candidate, Trump said he would back more privately-run prisons, which could lead to more aggressive lobbying in Washington. Congress could then appropriate more money to detention.

“People see this as a growth industry,” Chishti said. “You can sort of see the writing on the wall.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated city leaders in Gary, Illinois were considering an $80 million detention facility. In fact, it was city leaders in Gary, Indiana who were considering the proposal.

Rob Hotakainen contributed to this article.

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