Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Blog

By Isaac Levey
AAI Summer Legal Fellow

Last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2217, the yearly appropriations bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security. The bill passed 245-182, with the voting almost entirely along party lines. We were closely watching four amendments as the bill was on the floor. We were disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, that the majority made the wrong decision on all of them.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) filed an amendment before the bill passed (literally in the middle of the night) that seeks to reverse President Obama’s decision to suspend the deportation of four classes of undocumented immigrants, commonly known as DREAMers. Rep. Roybal-Allard, DREAM Act co-author and member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, called the King amendment “reckless and irresponsible.” It isn’t entirely clear how the amendment purports to override the President’s decision – only that the amendment would prevent continued implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which has permitted hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth to continue to live, study, and work in the U.S. without the fear of deportation. It probably achieved its purpose, as far as Rep. King was concerned, by allowing Republicans to rail against President Obama. The amendment passed 224-201, with less than ten Members from either party crossing the aisle, and Rep. King's amendment was undoubtedly the reason that the vote on the bill itself was so divided.  Regardless of what happens with immigration reform, this provision will not be in the final DHS appropriation.  It isn’t a serious attempt to make policy.

An amendment sponsored by Reps. Theodore Deutch (D-Fla.) and Bill Foster (D-Ill.) would have eliminated an arbitrary requirement that ICE keep at least 34,000 beds at their detention facilities, which in practical terms requires that 34,000 people be detained each night, even if ICE doesn’t think it’s necessary. As Congressman Deutch pointed out, no other law enforcement agency in the nation has a minimum number of people they have to keep locked up. Immigration detentions often last longer than, say, pretrial confinement in jail, but the detainees have far fewer rights in terms of due process and ability to challenge their detention.  AAI, along with many other civil rights and immigration organizations, signed a letter in support of Deutch’s amendment that was read into the record. The amendment wouldn’t have required ICE to release any person who they thought should be held, but simply give it more flexibility to meet its other goals by using methods like ankle monitors or parole in place of incarceration. The amendment failed, 190-232.

Finally, AAI supported two measures – both of which failed – to eliminate funding for unnecessary programs.  The first was an amendment offered by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), which would have eliminated a program known as section 287(g) which allows state law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law.  As we have explained before, Section 287(g) is expensive, ineffective, and encourages racial profiling and discriminatory enforcement. Section 287(g) enables people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, who so systematically targeted Latinos and violated Americans’ constitutional rights that he lost a case brought by the Justice Department. We agree with Rep. Polis: “You know that, if Sheriff Arpaio is citing a federal expenditure as the justification for his actions, there must be a problem with that federal expenditure.”  We also supported an amendment by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to eliminate funding for a TSA program known as Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT).  We sent a letter Friday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano expressing our concerns about SPOT, and a recent report by DHS' Inspector General seems to validate our concerns. The IG report found that the TSA cannot “ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify [SPOT’s] expansion.”  Given its ineffectiveness, and the fact that, like section 287(g), SPOT easily leads to racial profiling, we supported Rep. Thompson’s amendment to eliminate this wasteful and unproductive program. Unfortunately, both amendments failed: the vote on the Polis amendment was 180-245; on Thompson’s, 146-280.

It’s easy to see what these four votes have in common: they all represent the triumph of political theater over actual attempts to make policy.  Whatever happens with immigration reform this year, it’s obvious that the King amendment will not be part of the final DHS appropriations bill; King, like his ally Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), prefers authoring meaningless bills meant to embarrass the President than actually doing the hard work of legislating. Deutch’s proposal would have simply granted ICE more discretion to enforce its mandate without having to release anyone it actually thought should stay confined. The Polis and Thompson amendments sought to eliminate wasteful programs that have been shown to cost taxpayers money and harm citizens while failing to actually accomplish their goals. But the amendments were all voted down, on arguments that they would endanger public safety, or leave us too vulnerable to would-be terrorists. Hopefully the Senate, in its own DHS appropriations bill will be more pragmatic than the House, and put sound policymaking above shallow politics.


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