1. Update
  2. Immigrants & Refugees

The President's Budget Request for Immigration Policy

By Hannah Graf Evans, February 22, 2016

President Obama released his budget request for fiscal year 2017 in early February, the last budget request of his term in office. The request kicks off the budget process, often serving as the starting document that Congress will use to draft the Senate and House requests.

Immigration policy related budget pieces are found across different departments, which each get a separate appropriations bill in the congressional process. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) makes up a chunk of the numbers, including funds for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). With the increase of Central American children and families seeking refuge at our southwest border, Health and Human Services (HHS) also has a significant role in providing care and protection to vulnerable migrant and refugee populations. Finally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) handles the facility fees for immigrant detention and funds for immigration court systems.

What’s in the Presidential Request?

Unaccompanied Children, Victims of Trafficking, and Asylum-seekers

The budget request for DHS includes a small bump in funding from last year for CBP housing of families and unaccompanied children, including a contingency fund for unforeseen increases in those seeking refuge at our southwest border in FY17. At $319 million, the request covers the costs with temporary care and transportation of these families.

The HHS portion includes a substantial hike for temporary care for unaccompanied children who are placed under the care of the Administration for Children and Families before being placed in the homes of family members, friends, or other caretakers. The request includes $1.3 billion, a nearly 40% increase over last year’s enacted levels. This is a welcome increase; HHS is far more qualified to be caring for vulnerable populations – especially children – than CBP, as it has the child welfare, human trafficking, and refugee resettlement expertise necessary for adequate care and protection.

The DOJ request includes $5.7 million to prepare immigration court infrastructure for immigration judges and supporting staff. The court backlog for all immigration proceedings is just over 474,000. Missing from the request however, is measures to ensure that all asylum seekers and victims of trafficking are ensured proper legal representation – a stark omission given that children as young as 3 years old have gone to court proceedings with no lawyer.

Enforcement, Detention, and Removal

The report language for DHS still has a heavy emphasis on detention of undocumented immigrants, including a request for 30,913 detention beds, 960 of which are beds in family detention centers. Totaling $1.75 billion, this request is a slight decrease from last year’s enacted level which funded 34,000 beds. Unfortunately, current law includes a mandatory quota, requiring that a total of 34,000 beds be maintained in detention centers for immigrants. There is an opportunity for Congress to repeal this law – and likely an ally in Congress will offer such an amendment. FCNL applauds the effort of the Obama administration to budget without the inclusion of a bed quota for immigrant detention; a quota for any type of detention is bad policy, and a waste of tax payer dollars.

FCNL is disheartened that the legacy of the Obama administration includes both closing a disgraced detention facility for families in 2009, and re-opening family detention centers under the same private prison company in 2014. While the number is lower than the 2,000+ beds maintained this past year, these family detention centers largely house women and children from Central America who have fled their homes for their lives and should not be securely detained at all. Read our fact sheet on why the U.S. government should end all family detention.

The budget request does include a small increase in money for Alternatives for Detention - $126 million for 53,000 participants. This increase marks a shift away from expensive, often privatized, secure incarceration of immigrants, towards other forms of “intensive supervision”. However this money would be better spent fully investing in community-based alternatives, rather than restrictive ankle monitors that are also contracted through private prison corporations.

Notably, the budget request does not include funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), which reimburses state and local facilities for incarcerating immigrants with charges. This is a welcome omission, though the cut of $210 million will likely not pass Congress, which has opposed attempts by the Obama administration to cut the program in previous fiscal years.

Transparency and Accountability

The DHS budget request has no increase for the Office of Internal Affairs, responsible for investigating criminal misconduct of employees, despite having received almost 50,000 allegations of CBP and other reportable misconduct and only completing fewer than 10,000 internal affairs investigations. They have requested $165.223 million. We hope that Congress will work towards reforming the complaint process and border community input for CBP, the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.

What’s Next?

The president’s request is an outline for Congress only, and likely little regard will be paid to the request by Congress for immigration matters. There are few amendments that we would like to see offered in the congressional process:

  • The elimination of funding for beds in family detention.
  • The inclusion of increased adequate training resources and continuing education for Border Patrol, with a particular eye towards non-lethal enforcement and protection of civil rights.
  • The repeal of the bed quota mandating that 34,000 beds are maintained in immigrant detention facilities.

FCNL is working towards a society with equity and justice for all, and community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled. Unfortunately, the insistence to continue to enforce broken, opaque and vague immigration laws at the expense of family unity, community trust, or societal integrity is largely reflected in this request. There are however, a few marked shifts in this year’s request from last year – decrease in requested beds in detention, increase in money to care for unaccompanied minors, elimination of SCAAP – a small ripple in the tide of our broken enforcement mechanism. We will continue to monitor the process and makes sure that members of Congress hear from us about protecting immigrant families and the communities to which they belong.

Hannah Graf Evans

  • Former Legislative Representative, Immigration and Refugee Policy

Hannah Graf Evans led FCNL's lobbying for compassionate immigration and refugee policies, with a particular focus on detention practices, the rights of border communities, and protection of vulnerable communities. Hannah served as co-chair of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition steering committee for three years.