WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

13 Sep 2017 | Commentary

Border Build-up and Deportations in the Homeland Security Bill: Costly and Inhumane

The version of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill that is being debated in the House of Representatives as part of the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act would fund a massive security build-up, along with an enormous deportation force. These costly, counterproductive, and inhumane measures would create a climate of fear, threaten civil liberties in the United States, and put the lives of thousands at risk. They are a waste of money.

The DHS bill, including funding for the border wall, was voted out of the House Appropriations Committee on July 18, 2017. Subsequently, the committee took out the $1.6 billion included in the bill to fund the border wall and added it to a special bill, called a “minibus” (mini-omnibus, H.R. 3219), which combined several funding bills deemed important for national security. This “minibus” was passed in the House on a nearly complete party-line vote on July 27. Through a rule, the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act will be combined with the “minibus” into the House’s omnibus bill for fiscal year 2018.

Providing $1.6 billion to fund the “border wall” is wasteful and ineffective. Likewise, funding in the DHS Appropriations bill to ratchet up the number of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, without first ensuring proper vetting measures, risks making those forces more abusive and susceptible to corruption. Spending $4.4 billion on detaining and removing immigrants will break up thousands of families in the United States. It is at odds with the principle of due process and U.S. democratic values.

As an organization with decades of experience in human rights in the Americas and U.S.-Latin America migration, WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America) opposes the wall funding as well as the version of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill that may be approved by the House of Representatives. Several important amendments were submitted  for the bill that, if approved, would reduce many of the harmful provisions listed below and increased accountability for agents.

A massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is wasteful and ineffective ($1.6 billion)

  • Building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border would be an expensive and ineffective way to respond to the realities of migration from Mexico and Central America. There is already a barrier that blocks people and vehicles along 653 of the border’s nearly 2,000 miles. These 653 miles represent a 444 percent increase over 2005, when there were 120 miles. While it’s true that about 1,317 miles lack fencing, the Rio Grande forms a natural border along most of those miles. A wall only slows a determined crosser for a matter of minutes, and the Rio Grande serves the same function. Those sections remaining are in rugged, inhospitable terrain, where building a barrier would be not only impractical, but expensive.
  • The administration’s proposal—which this bill would fully fund—would construct 74 miles of fencing in FY 2018 at a cost of $1.57 billion. That adds up to a whopping $21.2 million per mile, which is five or six times the per-mile cost of the fencing built after 2005. To build 1,317 miles at this rate would cost $28 billion—and that figure doesn’t count the cost of acquiring land in Texas, where almost all border landholdings are privately held.
  • Building a wall would not stop drug traffickers. The vast majority of drugs trafficked into the United States are smuggled through land ports of entry in concealed compartments of passenger vehicles or hidden amidst legitimate merchandise. Relatively little cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or opioids are brought through the desert in the areas between ports of entry where walls are built. Building a bigger wall, then, would do little to stem cross-border drug flows.
  • Building the border wall would carry a steep diplomatic cost because of the hostile message it sends to Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

Adding 500 Border Patrol agents to a force that has dramatically expanded in recent years is unwise ($100 million)

  • Over the past 25 years, Border Patrol has been one of the fastest-growing agencies in the federal government. There are almost 20,000 Border Patrol agents today, compared with 12,000 in 2006 and 4,000 in 1993.
  • Undocumented migration across the U.S.-Mexico border was at 40-year lows even before it plummeted further after Trump’s inauguration.
  • Last year, Border Patrol apprehended 408,870 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. This was the 4th-lowest number of apprehensions since 1973. And 117,300 of those apprehended were Central American children and families, many of whom sought out border authorities to apply for asylum. Numbers have been even lower so far in 2017 and hardly warrant a wave of new hires.
  • Rather than assume the large expense of hiring and training new agents, Border Patrol should improve incentives for agents to move from quieter border sectors to others with more activity. In the El Paso sector, the average agent apprehends a migrant every 33 days. On the other side of Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley sector, the average agent makes an apprehension every six days. Rather than launch a new hiring surge, it would be far less expensive to invest in experienced agents who agree to transfer.
  • Another round of fast hires could compound Border Patrol’s management issues, create incentives for lowered recruitment standards, and further erode protections against corruption and rights abuses.

Hiring 1,000 additional ICE immigration agents and 600 ICE support staff will result in a draconian and unaccountable deportation force ($185.6 million)

  • Massively expanding ICE in such a short period of time raises concerns regarding recruitment standards and agent oversight and accountability.
  • The impact of this “deportation force” on immigrant communities would be devastating. Arrests of undocumented immigrants eligible for removals in the interior of the country increased by almost 40 percent in the first half of 2017 as compared to 2016.  Of these, around 26 percent did not have a criminal record. Previously, even among those deported with criminal convictions, roughly 80 percent were people whose only crime was immigration-related (like illegal entry or reentry) or a nonviolent offense like a traffic violation.
  • Increased deportations will tear families apart. According to a survey of deported Mexican immigrants, more than half have a family member who is a U.S. citizen, and one in four had a U.S. citizen child.

Increasing detention beds to 44,000 is unnecessary and inhumane ($4.4 billion total for detention and removal programs)

  • The bulk of this funding, $3.24 billion, is for “custody operations” in order to cover the costs of immigration detention. The bill would increase the number of detention beds to be filled every day to 44,000, which is 4,676 beds over the FY 2017 level, an increase of over $704 million in spending.
  • An increase in detention beds is unwarranted at a time when border crossings are down. The pressure to fill beds will lead ICE to detain more people in the interior of the United States without exercising discretion regarding the vulnerability of those detained, including whether they are asylum seekers. People who are fleeing violence in their home country deserve due process, not a detention bed. Moreover, immigration violations are violations of civil law that should not merit detention.
  • There are more cost-effective alternatives to detention. A 2014 Senate report found that on average, it costs the United States $266 per day to hold a migrant in detention. Meanwhile, alternatives to detention—more humane and cost-effective measures such as ankle bracelets, home visits, and telephone monitoring, to ensure that individuals appear for their immigration hearings—cost an average of $7 per day per person.

Additional funding in this section of the bill would add 26 new communities to the 287(g) program. This program enables state and local police officers to collaborate with ICE to enforce federal immigration laws. Some 287(g) agreements have resulted in widespread racial profiling. Granting state and local police with immigration enforcement roles may also negatively impact community policing efforts and immigrant communities’ willingness to report on crimes or seek assistance from authorities out of fear of being detained or questioned about their status.