For the first time in its history, the U.S. government is detaining more than 50,000 people it says are undocumented immigrants in jails and prisons around the country.
According to a figure provided to Capitol Hill and made available to The Daily Beast, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set an all-time record–the latest in its string of broken records concerning immigrants detained–is 50,049 people as of Wednesday, March 6. The figure includes both single adults and whole families behind bars. After initial publication of this piece, ICE confirmed the detentions figure.
It’s an increase of approximately 2,000 people in the month-plus since Jan. 30, when ICE, it previously told The Daily Beast, was detaining 48,088 people. And it’s just another 2,000 people shy of the 52,000-person daily detentions ICE is asking Congress to fund in its next budget.
Asked what accounts for the increase, ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a statement: “ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates. Ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for detention space is crucial to the success of ICE’s overall mission.”
It isn’t clear where ICE would have found the money for the increase. A year ago, when passing ICE’s most recent budget, legislators explicitly instructed the interior-immigration agency to cap detentions at 40,520. Instead, by the summer ICE had surpassed that total, leading its Department of Homeland Security parent to raid its other accounts, including FEMA, to float ICE. A Senate appropriator–the last sort of person an executive agency wishes to anger come budget season–called ICE out for continuing a policy of “maximum cruelty.”
“Congress should absolutely not pay a single penny more to fuel the administration’s agenda until there are clear and transparent explanations for what they’re planning on doing with the money,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told The Daily Beast in November.
Nevertheless, ICE continued breaking its detention records. It’s now reached a record high, composed of people who spend months–years, even–locked away, navigating a cumbersome and unfamiliar legal process, sometimes separated from their children or their parents and siblings. In some cases, they are held in for-profit prisons where they work for far below minimum wages.
ICE has still yet to account for its funding for the detentions increase. Asked on Thursday by The Daily Beast, ICE pointed to a conference call with Deputy Director Matt Albence from Feb. 11. Albence at the time answered a question about where ICE found money for an 8,000-person detentions overage by saying it was “still coming out of our detention PPA [program, project or activity]. That’s where we fund our detention beds. So, we are funding at levels where we are able to cover the bills that we currently have.”
Albence said last month that the 52,000 detentions ICE seeks congressional funding for was “really what we need to get the [job] done. We're managing as best as we can with the resources that we currently have, but there’s certainly no shortage of work out there.”
Immigration advocates were unsurprised and no less horrified.
“To see ICE jailing more than 50,000 immigrants each day–it’s a tragic milestone,” said Heidi Altman, policy director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “This mass deprivation of liberty and dignity is unnecessary and continues to play out in dangerous ways. Inside the jails people are enduring overcrowding, food consistently described as foul and meager in calories, solitary confinement as punishment for a misplaced word, and more. An expansion this quick and this reckless risks lives.”
ICE did see an increase in detention funding as part of the deal to prevent a government shutdown. Democrats and Republicans kept the government open, immigration advocates warned, on the backs of immigrants thrown behind bars. The deal raised the upper boundary of people ICE was funded to hold–but to 45,724. Even as legislators struck their deal, ICE had thousands more people than that under detention. It’s now exceeded that cap even more.
One young woman, Yesica, told The Daily Beast that she fled her native El Salvador to escape MS-13, the brutal gang President Donald Trump frequently suggests are representative of central American migrants. After escaping a dire fate of violent persecution for her sexual identity, she described her for-profit ICE prison in Texas, where she works for as much as $3 per day, like this:
“This is a really terrible place,” Yesica, 23, said through a translator in December. “It’s inhumane. It’s like a torture chamber.”