This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
Recent media reports highlight the fact that this nation’s immigration policies are hopelessly outdated and that Congress has been lax in promoting solutions.
For all the attention afforded a presidential administration’s approach to immigration and border security, the primary duty for protecting the nation and developing humane and productive policies rests with the legislative branch. Elected officials must fix a broken system.
That is evident in a report from the Associated Press, which revealed that the federal government is paying for privately run detention centers that go mostly unused. The government contracts with dozens of centers across the country to house people facing possible deportation, paying for a guaranteed 30,000 beds. But according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, only about half of those beds have been filled throughout this fiscal year.
“The government is still paying them to keep the facility open,” one expert said. “It’s really concerning they’re still getting paid for all the beds every single day. It’s empty.”
At a center in Tacoma, the guaranteed minimum is 1,181 beds, but the average daily population during the past year has been 369. Taxpayers are paying for the empty beds while facility operators reap the profits. Nationally, the average price of a contracted bed is $144 a day, according to The Associated Press, regardless of whether it is used.
In addition to calling immigration policy into question, the issue highlights problems with having the federal government hire private contractors for a variety of functions. Rather than allowing for the flexibility provided by in-house operations — cutting or adding staff, closing or opening facilities as needed — the system entrenches government waste.
One reason for the small number of detainees is the COVID-19 pandemic. In several cases, judges have ordered detention centers to reduce their population for the safety of detainees. “This case involves human lives whose reasonable safety is entitled to be enforced and protected by the Court pursuant to the United States Constitution,” a federal judge wrote in 2021.
All of this is related to border security and a need to control who enters our country. According to ICE officials, deportations decreased in 2021, the first year of the Biden administration, but a higher percentage of those deported were convicted criminals.
The trends reflect the wild policy swings from administration to administration, making it difficult for border officials to effectively do their jobs. All of this while Congress languishes, with both parties preferring to use immigration policy as a campaign tool rather than seeking solutions.
Recently, Democrats in the House added several immigration measures to a defense authorization bill. The bill routinely receives broad bipartisan support, with members of both parties desiring to be seen as pro-defense. Because of its certain passage, it is a favorite vehicle for attaching riders.
Although immigration certainly is related to national security, Congress must engage in serious discussions about comprehensive immigration reform. Years of piecemeal legislation have left us without a coherent policy that provides protection for people brought here illegally as children, enhances border security, makes it easier for highly skilled immigrants to enter the United States, and defines how those here illegally are detained and processed.
Having taxpayers fund empty beds is not an indicator of effective policy or practice. Congress must do something about it.