On September 28, President Trump signed a continuing resolution to extend funding for the Department of Homeland Security at the current levels until December 7. This move averted a government shutdown before the midterm elections and laid the groundwork for a bigger budget struggle over the coming months.
But perhaps one of the most significant things about the bill was what wasn’t in it.
In late August, the #DefundHate Coalition – a network of grassroots, advocacy and faith-based organizations working to defund Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – learned that ICE was trying to attach an anomaly to the continuing resolution to increase funding for immigration detention. They were asking for an additional $1 billion to escalate their racist and abusive detention and deportation practices.
When I heard the news, I thought about Prince Gbohoutou, who was transferred to the notorious Etowah County Detention Center, hundreds of miles away from his wife and community, where the county sheriff famously earned $750,000 in profits by not feeding detainees. I thought about the pain inflicted on Gbohoutou and his wife Shaniece, on all of us who care about them, and the 45,000 people held daily in ICE custody. This infusion of money would mean thousands more could be ripped from their communities.
This isn’t the first time ICE has used loopholes to inflate its own budget. The agency routinely spends more money than is allocated, then requests a transfer of funds from other parts of the Department of Homeland Security. It then uses the inflated budget amount to begin negotiations for the following year. Further, ICE is requesting more than $8.8 billion for 2019, even as the agency’s leadership has repeatedly ignored requirements from Congress to report on its activities.
These are huge numbers with tragic consequences. ICE has a long and well-documented history of racial profiling and grievous human rights abuses. Between 2010 and 2017 alone, 1,224 complaints were filed by those in immigrant detention for sexual and physical abuse. ICE also provides substandard care, leading to injury and even death for many in custody. To give just one example, this summer, one-and-a-half-year-old Mariee Juarez died shortly after her release from the South Texas Family Residential Center due to the inadequate care she received in ICE custody. Mariee and her mother had come to the US seeking asylum. Each funding increase expands the agency’s ability to perpetuate these atrocities.
When the #DefundHate Coalition heard ICE was trying to secure additional funding through the continuing resolution, we knew we had to mobilize quickly. Within a 10-day period we met with 30 members of Congress in DC, and organized grassroots groups to put pressure on their members of Congress in their home states.
On September 11, a group of immigrants, community leaders from the border region, faith leaders and activists from the #DefundHate Coalition delivered more than 60,000 petition signatures to Sen. Richard Shelby, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. I shared Gbohoutou’s story, as well as others of terrible suffering in inhumane conditions in detention. Residents from the border region shared how difficult militarization and racial profiling makes their daily life. We offered prayers for compassion on the part of Congress and chants of: “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here” until police arrived to escort us out.
We were also working to get information on exactly how much money ICE had diverted from other agencies. Using a Freedom of Information Act request and pressure from a friendly member of Congress, we were able to obtain documentation of ICE’s transfer requests. These transfers included nearly $10 million that ICE diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As Hurricane Florence was approaching and communities were bracing themselves for a devastating storm, ICE was using money that should have gone toward helping people survive to instead hold thousands of people in cages.
Congresspeople were provided with this information as part of our advocacy efforts. On September 11, Sen. Jeff Merkley shared the FEMA story with the press. Suddenly, ICE was facing yet another scandal, and politicians who had been hesitant to come out against the additional $1 billion funding request began to shift their position.
On September 13, Senate leadership released a budget bill without the billion dollars ICE had requested. That is $1 billion that won’t go toward caging our communities. Even in a deeply reactionary political climate, with an administration intent on punishing and oppressing the most vulnerable, grassroots organizing worked.
But this is only a partial victory. The bigger struggle will be over the funding for 2019 and for the years to come. It is up to us to build on this momentum, and to demand that Congress not only refuse to increase funding, but begin to defund ICE altogether.
Following increased public attention on ICE abuses, thousands of people across the country have called for the agency’s abolition. But that change isn’t going to happen overnight. That’s why it is critically important that we pay attention to the appropriations process, and do everything we can to reduce the resources ICE has to carry out its anti-immigrant agenda right now.
Often, a considerable obstacle to cutting ICE funding is lawmakers who may claim to support immigrants but are hesitant to take a stand against the agency. We need to make it clear that it is unacceptable to sacrifice human rights in the name of political expediency.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, signed petitions, made phone calls, occupied ICE offices, rallied at the border, and taken bold and creative actions to say that we will not stand for a hateful, racist agenda that cages and exiles our family, friends and neighbors. It’s time for Congress to send the same message.