November 16, 2018

As Congress Negotiates DHS Funding, ICE Dodging Inquiries About Possible Spending Violations

No response from ICE to senators’ inquiry about agency’s pattern of spending beyond its means, contracts for questionable detention facilities

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is calling attention to the Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) failure to respond to an October inquiry from 14 senators regarding ICE’s violation of congressional requirements, questionable contracting practices, and pattern of spending beyond its means. In their October inquiry, Udall and U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (W-Dis.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Bernard Sanders (D-Vt.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) requested answers to a series of questions by November 15, 2018 seeking transparency and closer scrutiny of the expansion of its detention contracting operations.

In a follow-up letter today, Udall wrote to ICE Acting Director Ronald D. Vitiello, “The Constitution entrusts Congress with the responsibility to set federal agency funding levels and we are now debating your FY 2019 budget prior to the expiration of the continuing resolution on Dec. 7, 2018. Failure to respond to important and legitimate Congressional inquiries is unacceptable, so please provide these answers without any further delay.”

The senators’ October inquiry came in the wake of ICE’s failure to comply with the FY 2018 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act, which requires ICE to make public a full list, updated monthly, of all facilities being used to detain migrants. Although ICE released a list of detention centers in September 2018, it omitted several significant locations from its list, including La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona, El Valle Detention Facility in Texas, and five Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities in Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and California. “Not only were these facilities omitted from the September report, but they appear to have been secured through questionable contracting practices, and without meaningful justification or transparency,” the senators wrote.

The senators continued, “Such practices result in facilities that have no meaningful oversight and strain our taxpayers.”

The senators outlined the troubling contracting practices used by ICE to expand its detention capacity. Specifically, they questioned whether ICE modified an existing contract with the City of Eloy, Arizona, for the operation of the La Palma Correctional Center, in order to use the City of Eloy as a “middleman” instead of contracting directly with a private corrections corporation – a tactic that essentially ensured that the corporation’s performance was “effectively insulated from government scrutiny,” according to the letter.

They further detailed reports of substandard conditions and sexual abuse of detainees at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas, which led ICE to cancel its contract for the facility in 2011, and their concern that ICE signed a new agreement in July, to re-open the Willacy County facility under a new name, the El Valley Detention Facility, despite the fact that “there is no indication of significant changes or precautions taken to remedy the facility’s previous deficiencies and notorious record,” the senators wrote. 

They continued, “In the FY 2018 Appropriations Act, Congress specifically included a provision to prohibit ICE from contracting detention services if the two most recent inspections of a contracted facility were less than adequate. This provision is intended to prevent the continued use of facilities that have systematically failed to provide adequate conditions for its detainees.”

The senators also questioned ICE’s decision to enter into interagency agreements with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to detain migrants for civil offenses in federal prisons. “BOP facilities are not appropriate for immigrants who are still in proceedings, and its facilities have failed to provide immigrants with adequate access to counsel, health care, or communication with family members. Because of the rushed nature of this expansion, BOP facilities were ill-prepared for the arriving immigrants. The consequences of this included sickness, inadequate translation, and basic failures to provide for hygienic needs,” they wrote. 

Finally, the letter highlighted ICE’s decision to expand detention facilities in the final months of the fiscal year in spite of its continued pattern of fiscal mismanagement. “The appropriations process is rooted in the Constitution and must be taken seriously by all agencies, yet there appears to be a pattern of mismanagement of funds by ICE. This fiscal mismanagement is even more problematic in light of the fact that ICE has received a nearly $1 billion dollar budget increase in the past two years – primarily for detention and deportation operations. Compounding the problem, ICE continued to request approval to augment its budget through fund transfers from other Departmental components,” the senators wrote.

The senators concluded, “While there may be significant disagreements about this administration’s immigration policies, there should be unified agreement about responsible stewardship of taxpayer funds.”

The full text of the October letter is available HERE. The text of Udall’s follow up letter is available HERE.