Democrats' caps on detention beds emerge as new sticking point in funding negotiations

    Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, enters a closed meeting room at the Capitol as bipartisan House and Senate bargainers trying to negotiate a border security compromise in hope of avoiding another government shutdown, in in Washington, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    With the threat of another partial government shutdown looming, the White House and its allies are taking aim at Democrats for demanding a cap on Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention that law enforcement officials say would endanger public safety and leave violent criminals on the streets of U.S. cities.

    “They are trying to undermine our ability to do interior enforcement,” ICE Deputy Director Matt Albence said Monday.

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    Congressional negotiators were set to meet again Monday afternoon after talks on a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill stalled over the weekend. Lawmakers have until Friday at midnight to pass legislation funding about a quarter of the government or agencies that were recently shuttered for five weeks could face another lapse in funding.

    President Donald Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for border wall funding forced the last shutdown, but Republicans say the current impasse is the result of Democrats pushing to limit ICE’s capacity to detain immigrants inside the country to 16,500 beds. The White House has signaled increased flexibility on border barriers, arguing it has other legal ways to obtain funds for construction, but the president rejected restrictions on ICE detentions.

    “The Democrats do not want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!” Trump tweeted Monday morning.

    Republicans allege the cap on detention beds would set violent criminals loose, but Democrats maintain their intent is exactly the opposite—to ensure ICE does focus on detaining violent criminals. The 16,500-bed cap would essentially bring detentions down to the level seen under the Obama administration, when ICE policy prioritized those who committed serious crimes after entering the country.

    On a White House briefing call with reporters, Albence called that proposal “anathema to public safety.”

    “We’ll be releasing gang members and individuals convicted of domestic violence and drug crimes,” he warned.

    Albence said there are current 20-22,000 people in custody because of ICE arrests and most of them have criminal convictions. He claimed keeping them in custody is the only way to ensure they show up for deportation proceedings.

    “Putting any artificial cap on our ability to do our job is damaging to public safety,” he said.

    Republicans proposed exempting immigrants convicted of certain crimes from the caps, but Democrats say that would defeat the purpose of imposing the limitations.

    “We got some problems with the Democrats dealing with ICE, that is detaining criminals that come into the U.S., and they want a cap on them, we don't want a cap on that," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

    The National Sheriffs’ Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America have delivered a letter to lawmakers urging them not to limit ICE’s detention capacity because it would necessitate the release of thousands of detainees with criminal convictions.

    “This dangerous congressional proposal not only jeopardizes the risk of our national security, but it hinders our law enforcement officers from effectively enforcing and upholding the law and protecting their communities,” the letter said.

    Although Trump described this demand as “out of the blue,” Democrats say it was part of their proposal when talks began last month. If they are agreeing to more funding for border barriers, they argue Republicans should make concessions on ICE detentions.

    R.J. Hauman, government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the Democrats’ position “indefensible.”

    “There is no longer any doubt that the Democratic Party is the party of open borders,” Hauman said, alleging that limiting detention beds will encourage more illegal immigration. “Democrats want less detention space so more illegal aliens can be released into American communities. How can you negotiate with that? If anything, more beds are needed.”

    However, immigrant rights advocates are defending the proposed caps as an attempt to rein in an out-of-control enforcement agency.

    “ICE is jailing immigrants at rates higher than we have EVER seen in history. It has nothing to do w/ public safety & everything to do with the fact that (1) this administration has a war on immigrants of color and (2) it believes it can operate unchecked & Congress doesn't matter,” said Madhuri Singh Grewal, federal immigration policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, on Twitter Sunday.

    Citing ICE data from November 2017, the National Immigrant Justice Center said about half of detainees in ICE custody are classified as “non-criminal” and posing “no threat.”

    “Even ICE knows their rhetoric is false. Last year ICE’s own data showed that they classify more than 50% of the people in their jails as posing zero community safety risk,” Heidi Altman, policy director for the NIJC, tweeted Sunday.

    Although Democrats mostly won the last shutdown standoff, Hauman predicted refusing to bend on detention beds for criminals will be a harder sell politically than stiffing Trump on funding for a wall he promised Mexico would pay for.

    “They’re using a must-pass spending bill to hamstring law enforcement and ensure that more illegal aliens are released into American communities,” he said. “If they don’t like the laws that ICE enforces, then change them. They were drafted by Congress, not President Trump.”

    White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday another shutdown cannot be ruled out, but members of both parties have shown little appetite for enduring a second work stoppage. If no agreement is reached soon, another short-term continuing resolution is shaping up as the most likely result.

    Mulvaney indicated in interviews over the weekend that President Trump is done waiting and is prepared to act unilaterally to build the wall, either by declaring a national emergency or attempting to reprogram existing funds.

    “We will take as much money as you can give us and then we will go find money someplace else legally in order to secure that southern barrier. But this is going to get built with or without Congress,” Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.”

    Before traveling to El Paso, Texas for a rally Monday where he is expected to continue his push for the border wall, President Trump appeared with more than a dozen sheriffs at the White House. Rattling off statistics on illegal immigration and crime, he accused Democrats of supporting the release of violent criminals.

    “These are people the Democrats want to come into our society,” Trump said. “I don’t think so... I don’t know, maybe we’re in a different country than I know of.”

    Asked at the end of the White House event whether there will be another shutdown, the president responded, “That’s up to the Democrats.”

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