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ACLU to President Obama: Tackle the Homeland Security Budget in Your Plan to Avert Fiscal Cliff

An image representing government surveillance.
An image representing government surveillance.
Shawn Jain,
Media Strategist,
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November 19, 2012

Much attention has turned to the so-called “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and increases in taxes that could take effect in early 2013 barring congressional action. According to The Wall Street Journaland others, the president met last Friday with congressional leaders to avert falling off the cliff, and the Obama administration is planning to unveil an alternative that would replace the cuts for 6-12 months with more-targeted reductions and revenue increases. Immigration policy is an important consideration to keep in mind during these negotiations. Specifically, we encourage the president’s forthcoming plan to include specific cuts that right-size the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by cutting wasteful and unnecessary immigration enforcement spending.

Last fall, when the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the so-called “Super Committee”) attempted to develop a proposal on how to cut $1.2 trillion in spending over the next decade, we joined with national organizations to recommend eliminating the ineffective 287(g) and Secure Communities (S-Comm) programs, and made the case for alternatives to wasteful spending on immigrant detention. Regarding cost savings, we specifically noted the following:

  • Eliminating 287(g) and S-Comm would save taxpayers around $250 million annually.
  • Alternatives to detention for non-violent immigrants in jail exist, costing between 30 cents to $14 per person per day, versus the current DHS detention of $122 to $166 per person per day. An example of an alternative is intensive electronic monitoring.

With appropriations for DHS increasing nearly 65 percent since 2003, it’s becoming clear, as The New York Times recently paraphrased security experts, that retrenchment in DHS spending is “inevitable and justified.” In an editorial published Sunday calling for comprehensive immigration reform, the Times went even further, calling DHS “a huge part of the problem, with its dangerous and widening use of state and local police officers as surrogate immigration enforcement agents.” With the sharp decline in unauthorized immigration, ineffective and wasteful immigration and border enforcement programs (particularly those at the U.S.-Mexico border) are a good place to start. A recent NPR report put spending at the border under the microscope, and found an impassioned and powerful advocate for a reduction: House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-KY:

Since the last comprehensive immigration reform was passed by Congress in 1986, creating this industrial complex focused on the southern border has been a bipartisan affair. And it really picked up after Sept. 11, 2001: Nearly every piece of security legislation since then has contained add-ons for immigration enforcement.

If you add up the budgets of the responsible agencies since 1986, the bill is $219 billion in today's dollars — roughly the entire cost of the space shuttle program. Unlike the space shuttle program, though, there's no end in sight… "It is a sort of a mini industrial complex syndrome that has set in there," [Rogers] says. "And we're going to have to guard against it every step of the way."

Addressing this excessive DHS spending will require more than reducing outsourcing to contractors like private prison companies and administrative cutting around the edges. In order to reach the sort of cuts needed to achieve fiscal responsibility, a realistic shrinking of DHS itself will be necessary. And this includes eliminating ineffective, costly programs such as 287(g) and S-Comm, as well as pursuing cheaper, effective alternatives to immigrant detention.

Additional Resources

Following are links to previous blog posts that provide background on 287(g) and its ineffectiveness, as well as on wasteful border enforcement spending. Last Thursday, the ACLU filed a class action on behalf of hundreds of immigrants in New Jersey subject to costly mandatory immigration detention. Also last week, Detention Watch Network launched a campaign and series of reports (“Expose and Close”) that call on 10 of the worst jails and prisons that house immigrants to be closed.

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