By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Congress weighs sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system, one thing is unlikely to change: a requirement that the government lock up more undocumented immigrants than it says is necessary.
Despite tight budgets and declining illegal immigration, Congress requires the Department of Homeland Security to hold about 34,000 people a day in centers for detainees facing possible deportation. That's at least 2,000 more than the Obama administration says is necessary, representing an added cost of about $132 million a year, critics say.
The daily quota, which began in 2007, appears to be unique in the world of law enforcement, where patrol officers and prison and jail managers typically are not told how many people they need to keep behind bars.
The policy, driven by law-and-order advocates in both parties who say the government could do more to crack down on illegal immigration, helps explain why detention costs for undocumented immigrants have more than doubled since 2006, to $2.8 billion annually. The rise has occurred even as the number of those caught along U.S. borders has fallen by two-thirds, according to government statistics.
Immigrant-rights advocates say the detention requirement forces the government to needlessly lock up thousands of people who could be supervised in less-confining ways for much less money, subjecting them to sometimes-harsh treatment in prison-like facilities as they await deportation hearings.
The detention quota also delivers millions of dollars annually to private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which together handle about half of all immigration detainees.
CCA and GEO Group are key players in Washington, spending millions of dollars in the past decade to lobby Congress and contributing to the campaigns of lawmakers who support tough immigration policies.
The companies say they do not advocate specific policies that would increase the number of people behind bars, but this claim draws skepticism from immigrant-rights groups and other critics.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates it actually needs only about 31,800 detention beds on a typical day to manage the asylum seekers, hardened criminals and terror suspects who await deportation in a network of 247 local jails, federal detention centers and private facilities across the nation.
"It doesn't make sense to have a numerical requirement," said Julie Myers Wood, who headed Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division under Republican President George W. Bush and believes the DHS should be given more flexibility in handling undocumented immigrants. "The goal is not to see how many people are detained."
'YOU FOLLOW THE LAW'
Despite such criticism, the House passed a spending bill last month that would keep the 34,000-bed quota in place.
The bill provides more money for lower-security monitoring programs, but would prevent immigration officials from moving detainees into those programs without congressional approval. The Senate has backed similar legislation in the past.
Republicans, who are the most vocal backers of the quota, say there should not be a problem filling the 34,000 beds given that more than 11 million people are in the United States illegally.
"Enforcement is enforcement, and if the law says, 'This is what happens,' you follow the law," said John Carter of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the Department of Homeland Security.
Some Democrats on Carter's subcommittee say the quota makes no sense at a time when Congress is slashing spending on everything from defense to aid for low-income families.
"My impression is it becomes a kind of proxy to show how tough one is on immigration," said North Carolina Representative David Price, the committee's top Democrat, who backed an unsuccessful effort to kill the quota last month.
Opponents of the quota also argue that many people now being locked up could be supervised through less expensive means such as electronic ankle bracelets.
Such methods typically cost 30 cents to $14 per day, compared with the $164 per day it costs to detain an immigrant, according to immigrant-rights groups.
The detention policy has drawn little attention even as talks on overhauling immigration laws have heated up in Washington.
A bill that passed the Democrat-led Senate in June would exempt many of those who are now in the country illegally from deportation, but it also calls for expanded enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, a measure that could lead to thousands more apprehensions and deportations.
The plan is likely to face a tougher road in the House, where the Republican leadership has emphasized increased border security and expressed much less enthusiasm about potential citizenship opportunities for undocumented immigrants.
THE PUSH FOR A QUOTA
The requirement that Homeland Security aim to detain a certain number of undocumented workers each day was established in 2007 at the urging of a Democrat - Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010.
At the time, Byrd and other lawmakers were concerned that Bush's administration was not allocating enough resources to handle an influx of detainees as it stepped up enforcement of immigration laws.
The flow of illegal immigrants across U.S. borders has dropped steadily since 2000, as a shaky U.S. economy has provided fewer opportunities for undocumented workers and economic conditions in Mexico have improved.
Increased border security on the U.S. side also appears to have discouraged some people from attempting to enter the United States illegally. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol caught 365,000 people at the Mexican border in the last fiscal year, down from 1.7 million in 2000.
As the government has continued to step up immigration enforcement, the number of deportations has risen steadily. Last year, 410,000 undocumented immigrants were deported, more than double the number from a decade earlier.
The Obama administration has focused on deporting those who have committed crimes in the United States; 55 percent of those deported during the last fiscal year had a criminal record.
But many Republicans in Congress push the daily detention quota because they view Obama as soft on illegal immigration. That stems largely from the White House's decision to avoid deporting younger immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, and its push to give millions of those immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
(Editing by David Lindsey and David Brunnstrom)