Clash looms over ICE funding

The spotlight on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is about to become brighter as Congress weighs the Trump administration’s request for a huge spending boost even as a growing number of Democrats want the agency abolished.

The administration is pressing Congress for $8.3 billion in discretionary funding for ICE in fiscal 2019 — a $967 million increase over this year’s budget. Democrats are already balking at the figure out of early concern that Republicans will designate the money for bolstering enforcement efforts, including an acceleration of deportations.


The Democratic resistance is significant because the Republicans will need support from the other side of the aisle to approve any new spending bills, as the GOP remains divided over fiscal issues.

“These allocations continue to prioritize President Trump’s cruel immigration policies,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, warned last month.

The debate over ICE enforcement, a controversial issue even under former President Obama, has only intensified under Trump, who made a get-tough approach on immigration central to his campaign message in 2016.

The subsequent backlash has arrived in the form of Democratic calls to abolish ICE, a once-fringe movement that’s gained steam in recent weeks following the shocking primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old activist who made the elimination of ICE — and the reallocation of its duties — a central component of her campaign. 

The top Democratic leaders — Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) — have both pushed back against the “abolish ICE” message, arguing that reforming the agency is the preferable route. But Ocasio-Cortez has been joined by a handful of prominent liberal Democrats, including several 2020 presidential contenders hoping to remain on the popular side of the party’s liberal base. That list of supporters includes New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). 

Republicans have wasted no time attacking Democrats with accusations that eliminating ICE would shield immigrants in the country illegally, including some violent criminals, at the expense of public safety.

Speaking to ICE employees on Friday in Washington, Vice President Pence praised the group as “incredible patriots,” seeking to carve a clear distinction between the parties when it comes to the preserving the future of ICE and boosting its resources.

“The truth is that calls to abolish ICE are not just outrageous, they’re irresponsible,” Pence said. “In this White House, let me be clear: We are with you 100 percent.”

The emotional back-and-forth sets the stage for a feisty debate over the future and funding of ICE when appropriators tackle the task later in the summer, just months before the high-stakes November midterm elections. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said the ICE funding debate will be split into four categories: increased funding for ICE agents; more funding for detention beds; funding for construction and infrastructure; and funding for alternatives to detention.

Cuellar said bipartisan support should be relatively easy to find for construction and alternatives to detention — for instance, ankle bracelets for people awaiting immigration hearings.

“But the two fights are detention and ICE agents,” said Cuellar.

Democrats generally oppose the expansion of detention centers and the hiring of more agents since they’re seen as tools that Trump can use to further enforce his hard-line immigration policy.

Cuellar said he’s advocating for the use of ankle bracelets both as a way to keep immigrants out of detention and as a fiscally sound measure.

ICE was created in 2003 by piecing together attributes from several law enforcement agencies in the homeland security restructuring that took place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

The agency has two main component branches: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). ERO’s main task is to find and remove foreign citizens who are deemed a danger to the United States, or who are in violation of their visas.

ERO also houses and transports foreigners who are in immigration detention. It has seen a big bump in funding in recent years, from $2.8 billion in fiscal 2014 to $4.1 billion in 2018. In next year’s budget, the administration has requested another big hike, to $5.1 billion.

Minors in detention are an exception to that, as they are housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

HSI is ICE’s investigative unit, and it deals with a wide range of cross-border criminal enterprises, including financial crimes, money laundering and bulk-cash smuggling; commercial fraud and intellectual property theft; cyber crimes; human rights violations; human smuggling and trafficking; immigration, document and benefit fraud; narcotics and weapons smuggling/trafficking; transnational gang activity; export enforcement; and international art and antiquity theft. 

“We can’t say, ‘Eliminate all that,’ ” said Cuellar, who called the push to abolish ICE “dangerously misguided.” 

“I’m assuming [Democrats] understand there’s two parts of ICE — the one that brings the emotion, of course, is the ERO,” said Cuellar.

“To consider reorganization, I think it’s something we need to look at,” he added. “But timing right now, because ICE has become this lightning rod for all this anger on immigration against the president, it would make it very hard to do that at this moment.” 

Cuellar cast doubt on the Trump administration’s sincerity in its call to support ICE.

“Of course, the president selects which law enforcement he supports,” Cuellar said. “He’s going after the FBI because they’re investigating him; he’s not going after ICE because they’re not investigating him.”

Tags Charles Schumer Cory Booker Donald Trump Kirsten Gillibrand Nancy Pelosi Nita Lowey

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