The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told a House committee Tuesday that the agency needs fewer detention beds for immigrants who face deportation and more funding for surveillance programs to allow them to stay at home instead.
Tae Johnson defended the Biden administration’s request for so-called alternatives to detention programs as a “much more humane” and “an effective and significantly less costly option” for immigrants who don’t pose a threat to the public.
Johnson, before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, was defending the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal to Congress for $8 billion for ICE, which would keep funds relatively consistent with this fiscal year.
The administration asked Congress to provide funding for just 25,000 detention beds — down from the current level of 34,000 — and requested an $87 million increase in funding for programs allowing for alternatives to detention.
These proposed funding levels are “just reflective of the administration’s position that alternatives to detention is the more appropriate and humane way of dealing with segments of the population that don’t pose a public safety or national security threat,” Johnson told the committee.
Committee Republicans criticized the proposed cut to detention bed capacity and questioned why the Biden administration would propose that ahead of an anticipated rise in migration to the southwest border.
Homeland Security officials have projected that border agents could see as many as 18,000 migrants daily once the administration lifts pandemic-related asylum restrictions known as Title 42 as early as next week.
“Once Title 42 goes away, we’re going to have an increased number of these people coming across, and instead of detaining them with those extra beds that you have, you’re cutting that and then going to be releasing those people into our country,” Iowa Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson said. “That’s what Americans are concerned about right now.”
Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., also criticized the administration for failing to fill up the detention beds that Congress already funded this fiscal year. He blamed the empty beds on the administration’s decision to narrow its enforcement priorities to migrants who committed serious crimes or recently crossed the border.
“Prosecutorial discretion does not mean you get to pick and choose what laws you will enforce. You get to pick and choose what order you will enforce them,” Rutherford said.
Still, Johnson maintained that more capacity in immigration detention centers is not the answer to rising migration levels.
“There’s not enough beds, you know, out in the private sector to detain our way out of this situation,” Johnson said.
Johnson also fielded concerns from Democrats over conditions and oversight efforts at the agency’s sprawling network of detention centers across the country.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., raised concerns about access to counsel for immigrants in detention, citing instances in which phones are not located in confidential areas or have limited minutes.
Johnson said this issue is “certainly something that we’re aware of” but that it “is not all that prevalent in most of our facilities.”
Johnson previously signed onto a report, submitted to Congress earlier this year and obtained by CQ Roll Call, that claimed access to counsel continued “unabated” in ICE detention facilities during the pandemic — a characterization legal service providers vigorously dispute.
Responding to questions from Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., Johnson confirmed the agency’s policy under the Biden administration is not to detain immigrants who are pregnant or nursing and that “only in very rare occasions would anyone stay in custody for an extended period of time.”
But he was unable to answer Underwood’s question on access to COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for those pregnant people who are in immigration detention, saying he had “no idea whether the vaccine is even acceptable for those that are pregnant.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all adults, including those who are pregnant, get vaccinated.
And in one testy exchange with Roybal-Allard, Johnson doubled down on ICE’s disagreement with a recent inspector general report that excoriated ICE for substandard conditions at a New Mexico detention center.
The March report found “excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions” — including clogged toilets, mold and water leaks — along with severe staffing shortages, and called for the immediate transfer of individuals from the facility.
In a striking response to that report, ICE’s acting chief of staff Jason Houser said ICE had “serious concerns about the accuracy and integrity” of the report and claimed a photo contained therein was “staged” and “knowingly given a false description.”
Johnson told lawmakers Tuesday the agency continues to disagree with the inspector general’s recommendations.
Moreover, he said ICE’s own investigators conducted a review of the facility just before the inspector general’s visit and rated it “excellent.”
“You’re telling me that [ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight] came out with a rating of excellence at the same time?” Roybal-Allard said, sounding incredulous. She told Johnson after her questioning that she “would like to follow up on this review.”
Caroline Simon contributed to this report.