House Democrats are moving to gut Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the federal agency responsible for arresting and deporting illegal immigrants — amid a raging southern border crisis that has grown exponentially since President Biden took office.
The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a plan to substantively makeover the portion of ICE that deals with illegal immigration, known as Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), along with changes to how federal law enforcement officers would handle migrants.
But progressive Democrats, some of whom called in 2018 for the outright abolishment of ICE, did not stop there.
“With the new budget, what they’re doing right now is they’re tearing ICE apart. The end game is tearing it up piece by piece,” said Tom Homan, a three-decade federal immigration officer who oversaw ICE during the Trump administration.
House Democrats further gutted ICE’s budget for detaining people, cutting out $331.6 million below the 2021 enacted level.
“After the election, there were seven of us senior [officials] that said, ‘OK, we need a plan,’ because we knew this was going to be the beginning of gutting ERO,” said a second former senior ICE official who asked to remain anonymous.
“But we honestly didn’t think it was going to get this bad.”
Under the House measure, the ERO would focus on quickly transferring adults and families who are encountered while illegally crossing the border to non-governmental facilities.
Existing family residential centers that are run by for-profit companies have already begun being phased out and the new shelters, which presently are housed in major hotels in several southern border states, would receive big contracts from nonprofits partnering with the government.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand socialist progressive Democrat who represents the Bronx and Queens, brought the idea of terminating ICE into the mainstream during her first congressional campaign in 2018. By that summer, Democrats in the House introduced a long-shot bill to do just that, though the legislation never took off.
However, AOC’s messaging and election victory in November 2018 spurred other Democrats to get on board with her, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The future of ICE was not a major contention point in last year’s election, but reforming ICE has been at the center of the President Biden’s agenda over the past six months — even as migrants have surged to the U.S.-Mexico border and coyote human smuggling activity has greatly increased.
In February, the acting head of ICE told officers they would no longer be allowed to arrest illegal immigrants, including those convicted of crimes, unless they were considered a national security threat, had been convicted of a top-tier criminal offense, or fit into several other categories.
Still, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, the second-highest Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, who is considered a centrist, defended voting for the bill, insisting that ICE would break even overall, getting $7.97 billion, which is $1.55 million less than what it received last year.
The ERO last year received $4.1 billion, but is slated to get $3.79 billion under the House’s current budget. The other component of ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, is getting hundreds of millions of dollars more than last year, making up for the decrease in ERO money, he said.
“Despite this issue, the bill provides the vast majority of resources necessary to safeguard our country,” Cuellar told The Post.
“As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and Vice Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee, I am confident that these problematic funding shortfalls will be corrected before the bill heads to the President’s desk.”
But Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) told The Post that the bill contains “enormous flaws and cannot be signed into law.”
“As the top Republican on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, I will do all I can to correct this flawed legislation, specifically, the provisions regarding enforcement and security, which are inadequate and problematic in both policy and in funding levels and will make us less safe.”