A House Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday morning highlighted the sharp divide in Congress over illegal immigration and what should be done about it, presaging the difficult fight ahead when Congress eventually begins to tackle proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.
The number of immigrants in government detention has more than doubled over the last ten years, with more than 360,000 detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in the last year. As a result, ICE now operates the largest detention and supervised release system in the country, creating an unprecedented challenge for the agency and for immigrants seeking to challenge their detention. Detainees often face long waits for deportation hearings, and are increasingly transferred to prisons far from where they were apprehended, disrupting their connections with family members and lawyers who can help them.
Thursday’s hearing, ostensibly about how ICE should improve its immigrant detention system, underscored the fundamentally inconsistent positions of lawmakers who either view illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals that need to be locked up and ultimately deported, or as hapless men and women who only broke the law in the hopes of attaining the American dream: a better life for themselves and their families.
“I think the most effective immigration reform is to truly enforce the laws on the books,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who stands squarely in the former camp. “Detention is an important part of enforcement,” he said, a view repeated by most Republican lawmakers and witnesses. “It is not safe or efficient to release thousands of foreign nationals who are in this country illegally,” he continued. “Aliens in detention facilities are not here on vacation . . . They should not be kept in facilities that are better than we give to U.S. citizens who are arrested and awaiting trial.”
Democrats, meanwhile, were concerned that the U.S. is detaining too many immigrants in unnecessarily restrictive conditions, and hampering their ability to claim a right to remain in the United States. Recent reports from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and Human Rights Watch have concluded exactly that, as did a recent report commissioned by ICE itself.
Committee vice-chair Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), presiding over the hearing, said she was “more concerned about the cost of incarcerating people and what type of people we’re incarcerating,” and “if these people have a claim under current law to be in this country that they get through the process in a timely manner in order to put that forward,” she said. “That’s why I called this hearing — not to purchase Hilton hotels,” she quipped, responding to Souder. “They’re not good investments these days anyway.” The Detention and Removal Operations division of ICE had a budget of about $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2009, according to a recent ICE report.
Immigration activists and experts testifying before the committee were equally divided.
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