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U.S. moves to expand deportation capacity

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is quickly identifying ways to assemble the nationwide deportation force that President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail as he railed against the dangers posed by illegal immigration.

An internal Department of Homeland Security assessment obtained by The Washington Post shows the agency has already found 33,000 more detention beds to house undocumented immigrants, opened discussions with dozens of local police forces that could be empowered with enforcement authority and identified where construction of Trump’s border wall could begin.

The agency also is considering ways to speed up the hiring of hundreds of new Customs and Border Patrol officers, including ending polygraph and physical fitness tests in some cases, according to the documents.

But these plans could be held up by the prohibitive costs outlined in the internal report and resistance in Congress, where many lawmakers are already balking at approving billions in spending on the wall and additional border security measures.

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Administration officials said the plans are preliminary and have not been reviewed by senior DHS management, but the assessment offers a glimpse of the department’s behind-the-scenes planning to carry out the two executive orders Trump signed in January to boost deportations and strengthen border enforcement.

Gillian Christensen, DHS’s acting spokeswoman, said the agency would not comment on what she called “pre-decisional documents.”

Immigrant-rights advocates called the plans an unnecessary waste of money and resources that are aimed at scaring the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived in the country for more than a decade.

Although Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has said DHS is not pursuing mass deportations, Trump’s executive orders broadly expanded the pool of undocumented immigrants who are deemed a priority for removal.

“This is an administration that very much is interested in setting up that mass deportation infrastructure and creating the levers of a police state,” said Marielena HincapiĆ©, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “In these documents, you have more proof and evidence that they’re planning to carry it out.”

Congressional Democrats, who have opposed Trump’s immigration agenda, have expressed skepticism that Congress would agree to approve funding for many of the expensive initiatives.

For example, Trump has called for CBP to hire 5,000 new agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement an additional 10,000. The DHS assessment said the cost of hiring just 500 agents would reach $100 million.

Republican leaders have proposed delaying a decision on Trump’s initial request of $1.5 billion for the wall and an additional $2.6 billion for more border security next year until after a new spending bill is approved this month in the hope of averting a government shutdown.

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“We believe it would be inappropriate to insist on the inclusion of such funding in a must-pass appropriations bill,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and four Democratic colleagues wrote of the wall in a recent letter to the Senate’s Republican leadership.

But the DHS assessment states that Border Patrol is moving forward with construction of a border wall prototype with $20 million that lawmakers reappropriated in March, with completion of the prototype to be completed July 22.

If Congress were to allocate more funds, the next step for CBP, according to the documents, would be to begin work with the Army Corps of Engineers to launch construction of 34 miles of levee wall or a border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which the agency calls the “highest-priority area,” as well as 14 additional miles of a border barrier in the San Diego sector.

Cost concerns are peppered throughout the DHS assessment documents. Although ICE has identified 27 potential locations that could increase its detention space by 21,000 beds, that agency “will be unable to secure additional detention capability until funding has been identified,” according to the documents.

In addition, CBP has made contingencies to expand its own detention capacity by 12,500 spaces, but the agency does not spell out whether funding is available for those slots.

CBP also is laying the groundwork to potentially hold immigration-court hearings through video conferences at or near U.S. ports of entry if the government of Mexico agrees to house third-country immigrants awaiting adjudication in the U.S. legal system, the documents show.

The Mexican government has balked at such a procedure, which would raise significant jurisdictional concerns. But if such a procedure were established, it would cost $50,000 per location for the video equipment, the DHS documents state.

Alternative plans to send U.S. judges to the “port courts” are also being considered, although such a procedure would cost $400,000 per location.

“They’re throwing a lot of public resources at a problem that should not be a priority, especially since the number of [border] crossers is down considerably,” said J. Kevin Appleby, a senior director at the Center for Migration Studies.

Government figures show the number of people illegally crossing the border from Mexico has dropped sharply in the first two months of Trump’s administration. The DHS assessment states that 2,100 detention spaces previously reserved by CBP and ICE during an immigration surge late last year are unused.

“Overall, it’s a wasted use of resources that could be used more efficiently,” Appleby said.

One area in which the Trump administration could potentially increase its deportation capacity at relatively lower costs is expanding a program in which ICE grants local law enforcement agencies immigration enforcement powers traditionally reserved for the federal government.

The program – known as 287(g), which is the federal code that established it in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996 – grew to encompass more than 70 local jurisdictions at its peak. But immigrant-rights groups charged that the program has resulted in civil rights abuses and racial profiling by poorly trained local police and lax supervision by ICE.

The program fell out of favor in the latter years of President Barack Obama’s administration, and there are now 37 jurisdictions participating at a cost of $24 million, according to the American Immigration Council.

Trump’s executive orders instruct ICE to expand the program and allow CBP, which did not previously participate, to launch its own version – in hopes of creating a “force multiplier.”

The DHS assessment states that the ICE review board is considering applications from 18 new jurisdictions and has identified 50 more that are interested in participating.

Yet the documents again raise a cautionary flag about funding, stating that ICE probably will be unable to add more than 20 new 287(g) partnerships this year because of limited resources.

“Up to now, they have really been using scare tactics to put on a show, to demonstrate to supporters they are tough on immigration,” Appleby said. “Eventually, they really have to produce results. Without congressional approval [for funding], they will not reach the deportation numbers under Obama. That will be the test. If in the first year, if there are not a significant number deported, how will they distinguish themselves from the previous administration?”

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