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How Democrats Abetted Trump’s Bloated Border Regime

Congress has funneled billions of dollars to the White House's anti-immigration enforcement arms. Here's how that money has been spent.

In the Trump era, two interrelated agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection—have together generated some of the standout horrors of the president’s border and immigration agenda: separating migrant families, allowing children to die in filthy, disease-ridden cages at CBP “processing centers,” and staging shock-and-awe raids to detain and deport immigrant workers throughout the country. Together they form what is arguably the most loathsome wing of the Trump administration—no small feat. Yet while they enjoy vocal support from the president and his base, they have also quietly become the sort of federal agencies that Republicans claim to hate: big spenders.

Last year ICE and CBP funding briefly became front-page news, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a $4.6 billion “emergency aid” package through Congress, ostensibly to alleviate a human catastrophe on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the larger context of the $74 billion budget for the Department of Homeland Security (which houses ICE and CBP), the summer outlay may seem a trifle. But it affords a rare opportunity to examine just what ICE and CBP are doing with all the new funds they have to play with, as a bipartisan Congress gives them more and more money every year.

Take, for instance, the film-production deal. In September, ICE signed a $961,348 agreement with Strategic Operations, a San Diego–based movie production company that makes realistic film sets for urban warfare training, usually for the military and police. Under the agreement, Strategic Operations is now building similar sets for ICE at the military base in Fort Benning, Georgia.

The contract stipulated that Strategic Operations would build “Chicago”- and “Arizona”-style sets, according to Representative Chuy Garcia, a Democrat who represents a district that covers parts of Chicago. ICE claims that the sets are intended to help train its special response teams in targeting drug gangs and conducting hostage rescues. But Garcia and other lawmakers say it sure looks as though ICE agents are preparing an elaborate simulation of full-scale military invasions of immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

The language of the acquisition form “makes it sound like [ICE] is attacking a war zone, and that war zone happens to be our neighborhoods,” said Garcia, who lives a block away from a busy commercial strip in Chicago’s La Villita neighborhood. “So when I hear about ICE developing this kind of training facility, it’s difficult to not think of it as a declaration of war against my community.”

Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, the border-enforcement machine has grown by tens of billions of dollars. The spike in ICE and CBP funding furnishes a revealing case study in how an executive branch committed to a policy of white supremacy can wrest money and resources to implement its vision. A craven Congress has dutifully ponied up the funds for this mission, under the guise of addressing a supposed migrant crisis. The result is a bloated border regime whose wastefulness is only matched by its voracious cruelty, as it seeks to spend every dollar that Congress shovels its way.

The budget for DHS has grown virtually every year since its creation in 2003. What started out as a counterterrorism body has evolved into a gargantuan anti-immigration operation—one that is only poised to get bigger, and costlier, as the Trump White House continues spouting demagogic lies about conditions at the border. For 2020, the Trump administration asked for a 24 percent increase in the DHS budget—by far its largest annual increase, approaching a total discretionary budget of $100 billion. The budget passed by Congress at the end of 2019 included nearly $23 billion for CBP and ICE, the most in the agencies’ histories.

A stalemate over the president’s budget always carries the risk of a shutdown, which is broadly unpopular with voters. It was therefore significant when the Hispanic caucus—including Garcia—uniformly voted against it. But with the exception of a pocket of resistance, House Democrats capitulated to the president’s demands, a result that was as disappointing as it was eminently predictable.

Back in the summer, when congressional Democrats approved the $4.6 billion in additional funding for agencies working at the border, the number of immigrants in detention had climbed to a record high following a crush of families seeking asylum at the border. Officials at DHS repeatedly called the situation a “crisis” and stressed that they weren’t prepared to handle it. But to the extent that a crisis loomed for the border-enforcement complex, it was in large part a self-inflicted one—the consequence of new immigration policies that prevented these desperate families from simply finding refuge in the United States. These included the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy toward any unauthorized entry into the country, resulting in criminal prosecution of all adult migrants.

Still, the Trump administration said it needed more funds from Congress to pay for, among other things, 20,000 shelter beds for children who had been separated from their families or crossed the border alone. Democrats were under pressure both to help these children and assure voters that they were doing something about the situation at the border—in this case, throwing a lot of money at the poll-friendly notion of “border security.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls on Congress to defund ICE at a press conference in Washington, D.C., in February 2019.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Initially, New York Representative Nita Lowey, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed skepticism about Trump’s request for billions of dollars in aid. The House drafted its own version of the bill that put limits on the amount of time children could be held in custody, reduced funding for ICE, and mandated new protocols for CBP to deliver medical care and supplies to migrants. This version never passed. Instead, the House approved a bill that gave the Trump administration all the money it wanted, including more than $1 billion to bolster the enforcement operations of both CBP and ICE, with only a veneer of oversight.

A minority of Democrats in the House refused to vote for the final bill. Some made visits to ICE and CBP facilities after the vote. Following a visit to a CBP center near El Paso, Texas, where agents kept an improvised quarantine room for children infected with scabies, flu, and chicken pox, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that one woman at the facility told her that agents were inflicting “psychological warfare” on detainees. “Tell me what about this is due to a ‘lack of funding?’” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

A review by The New Republic of contracts signed since the emergency aid was dispensed in July has found that all the fears of opposition Democrats were justified. The federal government has embarked on an aggressively privatized effort to crack down on unauthorized migration and create more detention space for migrants.

In particular, the bailout is paying for a major expansion of the government’s network of child camps. An additional $2.8 billion is now flowing to the Office of Refugee Settlement, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that coordinates closely with ICE and CBP in organizing the long-term detention of children.

“We’ve seen it happen so many times,” said Gabriela Viera of the Detention Watch Network. “There’s an instinct to want to throw money at agencies that, again and again, have proven they’re not going to use resources to improve the systems and treat people better.”

Not that DHS has regarded past budgets as anything other than loose suggestions. For the last three years, DHS has brazenly overspent beyond the funds allocated for ICE and, to a lesser extent, CBP. In fiscal year 2019, for example, ICE was supposed to reduce its total number of detainees to 40,000—yet its detainee population surpassed 55,000 by July. The agency regularly hoodwinks Congress out of money by maxing out its budget at opportune moments, as when (as is increasingly the case) the government is forced to pass a temporary spending bill due to partisan gridlock. ICE will escalate its spending during these periods, then use the newly inflated figure as a baseline for setting its budget for the next fiscal year. In addition, the administration has made it a regular practice to transfer funds to ICE from other agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Budgets often double as de facto bureaucratic mission statements, and the contracts approved since the summer speak volumes about the broader policy vision behind the expansion of ICE: a militarized border, an archipelago of private prisons. Eighteen million dollars to Unisys Corporation for software to better catalog and track people entering the country; $11 million to Glock for hollow point ammunition; $24 million to the GEO Group, the country’s largest private prison company. The GEO contract stands to be something of a boondoggle, since it emerged out of a last-minute scramble by ICE to successfully issue contracts for three California facilities right before a state law phasing out the use of private prisons went into effect.

The most significant portion of the summer border-funding bill—$2.8 billion—didn’t go to DHS but to the Office of Refugee Settlement, the agency that manages shelter space and placement for all unaccompanied migrant children whom CBP and ICE are unable, or unwilling, to reunite with family members. Children stay with ORR until they’re either placed with a sponsor, such as a foster home, or deported from the country. The agency may give these displaced children a roof over their heads, but in the bigger scheme of things it normalizes what should be understood as CBP and ICE’s illegitimate power to separate those children from their parents and detain them in the first place.

Indeed, ORR facilities function as detainment camps, with just a semblance of educational programming to make it appear that the agency is staffed with responsible caregivers. Children can be locked up at ORR facilities for months at a time, depending on how quickly ORR officials find a more permanent place for them to stay. The agency doesn’t operate its facilities directly, instead awarding grants to organizations, typically nonprofit and charitable concerns, to provide everything from food and beds to scholastic curriculum and therapy.

While funds are now pouring into these facilities, with a mandate that staff spend the money quickly, conditions have historically been wretched. Throughout some 170 facilities in 23 states, there were nearly 6,000 allegations of sexual assault or abuse between 2015 and 2018, and while most involved only minors, 194 were lodged against adults, nearly all staff.

Worse still, the leaders of ICE, CBP, and ORR entered into a secret agreement to make it significantly harder for children to leave ORR custody. ORR’s role was to update procedures for locating a child’s potential sponsors to include an extraordinary amount of fingerprinting and vetting of all adults in the potential sponsors’ home. The amount of time children spent in ORR facilities started to climb, to an average of 90 days, before ORR began easing the requirements after a public outcry.

Publicly, top Trump officials said the enhanced vetting protocols were safety measures, to ensure that officials at the camps weren’t handing kids over to human traffickers, when in reality they served as a deterrent for detained children’s undocumented parents and families. According to private emails obtained by The Washington Post, ORR officials are now attempting to build case files on detained children’s parents and adult relatives, which they can share with ICE to aid in detention and arrest.

The border aid bill has been a boon for child-detention-center companies as well. These concerns have landed contracts in the hundreds of millions to scale up their operations. One of them, Comprehensive Health Services, is a for-profit operator financed by the private equity firm Caliburn International, which is overseen by a slew of former government and military officials. John Kelly, Trump’s first DHS secretary and second chief of staff, joined CHS as a director in 2019; before working for Trump, he was a board member at DC Capital, the private equity firm that owns CHS.

After the closure of its massive detainment center for children in Miami, known as Homestead Shelter, CHS’s profit center has shifted to the Rio Grande Valley. Facilities in Los Fresnos, Texas, and nearby San Benito are built to incarcerate hundreds of kids but right now are mostly empty. In nearby Brownsville, CHS is building a camp specifically for minors, set to open in 2020.

CHS now operates facilities that hold more than a quarter of all children in ORR custody, alongside another major charity contractor called Southwest Key. (The latter is currently the subject of a DOJ investigation because its former CEO allegedly leased his own property to the charity he headed, among other self-dealing by top executives.) Southwest Key had been guaranteed more than $600 million in contracts from the federal government through 2020, despite records of significant sexual and physical abuse in its Arizona facilities and violations of state licensing requirements in Texas.

It remains to be seen whether these new facilities will ever be filled up. Thanks in part to Trump’s cruel border policies—which force asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican and Central American areas as U.S. immigration judges decide their fate—the number of children in ORR custody is plummeting, from a high of 11,000 in 2019 to 4,300 currently. The emergency bill’s legacy may be a network of sparkling-new child camps that never get used. It says nothing good about the bill that this chain of potentially empty detention facilities would be highly preferable to employing them in the policy initiatives they were designed to serve.

Even though the federal immigration enforcement complex is flush with cash, a report from DHS’s Office of the Inspector General found that the three agencies at the center of the family separation crisis—CBP, ICE, and ORR—never invested in the IT capabilities that would have allowed them to accurately track separated families. That means, among other things, that the chief agents of family separation possess no way to competently reunify the immigrant families they’ve traumatized. Thanks to a host of screw-ups—database mismanagement, misspelled names, simple human error—the OIG report identified 1,369 children “with potential family relationships not accurately recorded by CBP” from October 2017 to February 2019. This is in addition to the 3,014 children DHS itself estimated to have been separated from their families in the six weeks that the “zero tolerance” policy was in effect.

Furthermore, the government has continued to separate more than 1,100 families since the official end of “zero tolerance” in June 2018, when Trump rescinded the policy amid an outcry. According to the OIG report, the three agencies still cannot effectively share such information, relying instead on ad-hoc, error-prone methods, such as loose notes or Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

All the money in the world, in other words, can’t buy you a humane border-enforcement machine. The campaign to abolish ICE gained momentum in the 2018 midterms, but only two Democratic presidential candidates committed to breaking up ICE: Both Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro want to give deportation enforcement to the DOJ, arguing that this shift in jurisdiction would enhance oversight and reduce migrant abuse. Castro also told me that he would “revamp completely the culture through better training and better policies.” (Castro dropped out of the presidential race in early January.)

Still, it’s largely unclear how a Democratic president would change the vicious, punitive culture that has raged in both ICE and CBP, while also undoing the devastation wrought by the Trump administration’s right-wing immigration policies. Reducing the funding and mission scope of immigration enforcement would be a break from all past precedent set by Democratic presidents. And as the Democratic-controlled House showed this summer, there will be a temptation yet again to throw money at a system that has created a criminal amount of gratuitous human suffering.

Meanwhile, the racist ideologues who have spearheaded Trump’s border policy know exactly why the beast must continue to be fed. In a November interview with Breitbart, Jeff Sessions, who was the top enforcer of family separation under Trump and is now running to reclaim the Alabama Senate seat he long held prior to his appointment as attorney general, suggested that the future of white nationalist politics depended on it.

“Where does power lie?” Sessions said:

It ultimately lies with the American people. The American people support those ideas—and they are Donald Trump’s ideas. If we will clarify, we will welcome the people’s ideas, and advance them, and expose the Democrats as the party that’s trying to block it then we have an opportunity to lead the country for the next two generations—for the next 20 years.

The next time Democrats are asked to funnel more money for “border security,” they would do well to remember whose cause they’re really serving.