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The Honorable Mike Enzi
Chair, Senate Budget Committee
379 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Bernie Sanders
Ranking Member, Senate Budget Committee
332 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable John Yarmuth
Chair, House Budget Committee
402 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Steve Womack
Ranking Member, House Budget Committee
2412 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Re: Decreasing immigration enforcement funding in FY 2020 budget

Dear Chairman Enzi, Ranking Member Sanders, Chairman Yarmuth, and Ranking Member Womack:

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge you to reduce funding for the administration’s wasteful and abusive immigration enforcement activities and to exercise much-needed oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during negotiations over DHS appropriations.

President Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposes a record $51.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes a 19 percent increase in funding from FY 2019 for US Customs and Border Protection (CPB, $18.2 billion) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, $8.2 billion). Such an increase in funding is entirely unwarranted for an agency that has repeatedly failed to use its resources in rights-respecting ways.

The proposed budget includes:

  • $8.6 billion for construction of a border wall ($5 billion from CBP and $3.6 billion from the Department of Defense);
  • $192 million for 750 Border Patrol agents, 171 CBP officers and support staff;
  • $367 million for aircraft, vessels, surveillance technology, and equipment;
  • $314 million for an additional 1,000 ICE agents, and others;
  • $2.7 billion to detain 54,000 people per day, with the stated goal of detaining 60,000 people per day, including 10,000 family detention beds;
  • Creation of a “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Fund” which would increase detention capacity to 60,000 a day, plus increase hiring of new immigration judges and federal prosecutors.

Instead of the above, the FY 2020 DHS Appropriations bill should accomplish the following:

  1. Congress should reduce the enforcement and detention budget for ICE and CBP. CBP’s budget has nearly tripled since DHS’s inception in 2003 and ICE’s has more than doubled—the two budgets total $26.4 billion in taxpayer dollars, a historically unprecedented high.[1] DHS’s rapid and unchecked growth in spending has given rise to serious abuse.

Human Rights Watch has documented: abusive conditions in CBP holding cells, including for children;[2] failures by CBP to follow US law when apprehending asylum seekers at the border;[3] the separation and mistreatment of families traveling together to the US to seek asylum;[4] systemic failures in detention medical care that has contributed to preventable deaths;[5] transfers of immigrant detainees between far-flung detention centers in ways that interfere with their due process rights;[6] the abuse of transgender women in detention;[7] and widespread summary deportations of people who call the United States home—including mothers, fathers, and spouses of US citizens; tax-paying employees; and respected community members—without giving them a chance for consideration of their deep and longstanding ties to the United States before removing them from the country.[8]

In addition, the media and other organizations have documented DHS’ harmful treatment of immigrants, including force-feeding of hunger strikers in violation of the Convention Against Torture;[9] harassment of journalists and attorneys at the US-Mexico border;[10] and enforcement activities at courthouses affecting domestic violence survivors’ safety and due process rights in general.[11] Measures should be taken to rectify the structural causes of these abuses and the impunity that has generally attached to them, before any increase in appropriations towards enforcement activity is considered.

The abuses that we and others have documented require enhanced oversight and greater attention to due process. We recognize that these activities may, in fact, require appropriation of funds. For example, we support allocating funds for hiring immigration judges and providing know-your-rights services;[12] ensuring counsel for noncitizens whose due process rights are threatened in immigration proceedings including vulnerable groups such as persons with mental disabilities;[13] requiring transparency in data collection and dissemination;[14] creating effective accountability mechanisms within DHS and its component agencies; improving detention conditions, and providing sufficient resources for appropriate medical care. However, without a clear commitment by this administration and this Congress to appropriate first to these types of activities, there should at the very least not be any increase in appropriations for enforcement and detention.

  1. Congress should explicitly limit DHS’s authority to transfer or reprogram money toward increasing immigration detention, or other enforcement programs.

In recent years, ICE has redirected appropriations to grow its detention and enforcement machinery, spending beyond Congressional appropriations to expand detention to peak levels. ICE employed this tactic during the most recent partial government shutdown as it expanded to 49,000 individuals in custody despite the fact that the agency had only been appropriated funds to detain 40,500 individuals per day.[15] For this reason, critical accountability measures such as limitations on transfer and reprogramming authority must be included in statutory text, not just report language. It is now in your power to reverse the trend and start tackling the harms that deployment of these resources regularly causes.

  1. Congress should ensure DHS, particularly ICE and CBP are investing adequately in accountability and oversight and should impose vital safeguards and reporting obligations in order to hold DHS accountable.

Despite congressional reprimands in response to unmet demands for transparency and required reports, DHS under the Trump administration has failed to comply with budgets, deadlines, and reporting requirements. For example, ICE’s response to Congress’ requirement in its FY 2018 Appropriations Bill to issue full detainee death reports within 90 days of a death in custody, was to fail to meet the 90-day deadline for multiple deaths during fiscal year 2018, and to release severely truncated, incomplete reports completely devoid of analysis.[16] Shockingly, DHS has faced no consequences for these failures. Instead, its budget continues to skyrocket.

DHS’s own Inspector General has found evidence of mismanagement and abuse, including but not limited to:

  1. Congress should carefully consider whether surveillance technologies would violate the human and constitutional rights of travelers, immigrants, and people who live near the border—and decline to fund those that it believes would do so.

Congress should also conduct robust oversight of government surveillance technologies already deployed at the border and ensure that any employment of surveillance technologies is disclosed in any relevant immigration or criminal cases as to ensure judicial scrutiny of any potential rights violations. We are concerned that funding further government surveillance on the border could amount to increased rights-violating surveillance of large numbers of people in the United States.

We call on you to reject any increase in appropriations that will exacerbate serious rights violations in the existing immigration enforcement system, and instead to put forward appropriations that will enhance transparency, due process, accountability, and fair treatment of all people subject to DHS jurisdiction.


Jasmine L. Tyler
Advocacy Director
US Program, Human Rights Watch


The Honorable Richard Shelby
Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee
304 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Patrick Leahy
Ranking Member, Senate Appropriations Committee
437 Russell Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Nita Lowey
Chair, House Appropriations Committee
2365 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Kay Granger
Ranking Member, House Appropriations Committee
1026 Longworth HOB
Washington, DC 20515

[1] American Immigration Council, “The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security,” January 25, 2017,

[2] Human Rights Watch, In the Freezer: Abusive conditions for women and children in US Immigration Holding Cells,” February 28, 2018,

[3] Human Rights Watch, ”You Don’t Have Rights Here”: US Border Screening and Returns of Central Americans to a Risk of Serious Harm, October 16, 2014,

[4] Joel Rose, “Deported Parents Describe Agonizing Wait to be Reunited With Their Children,” National Public Radio, August 14, 2018,

[5] Human Rights Watch et al., Code Red: The Fatal Consequences of Dangerously Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention, June 20, 2018,; Human Rights Watch and Freedom for Immigrants, Systemic Indifference: Dangerous & Substandard Medical Care in US Immigration Detention, May 8, 2017,

[6] Human Rights Watch, A Costly Move: Far and Frequent Transfers Impede Hearings for Immigrant Detainees in the United States, June 14, 2011,

[7] Human Rights Watch, “Do You See How Much I am Suffering Here?”: Abuse Against Transgender Women in Immigration Detention, March 23, 2016,

[8] Human Rights Watch, The Deported: Immigrants Uprooted from the Country They Call Home, December 2017,

[9] Human Rights Watch, “ICE Force-Feeding Immigrant Detainees on Hunger Strike: Force-feeding is Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading,” February 1, 2019,

[10] Human Rights Watch, “US Harassing Journalists, Lawyers, Activists at Border: Congressional Investigation Needed,” March 8, 2019,

[11] Matthew S. Schwartz, “Judges Ask ICE to Make Courts Off limits to Immigration Arrests,” National Public Radio, December 13, 2018,

[12] Human Rights Watch, Tough, Fair, and Practical: A Human Rights Framework for Immigration Reform in the United States, July 8, 2010,

[13] Human Rights Watch, Deportation by Default: Mental Disability, Unfair Hearings, and Indefinite Detention in the US Immigration System, July 25, 2010,

[14] Letter from Human Rights Watch to House Oversight Committee on problems with FOIA, June 2, 2015,

[15] Julia Ainsley & Heidi Przybyla, “Why the Trump Admin Wants More Detention Space for Migrants and Democrats Want a Limit,” NBC News, February 11, 2019,

[16] National Immigrant Justice Center et al., “ICE Releases Sham Immigrant Death Reports As it Dodges Accountability and Flouts Congressional Requirements,” December 19, 2018,

[17] Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, “Issues Requiring Action at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, New Jersey,” February 13, 2019,; “Management Alert: Issues Requiring Action at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California,” September 17, 2018,; “Concerns About ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Detention Facilities,” December 11, 2017,

[18] Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, “ICE Does Not Fully Use Contracting Tools to Hold Detention Facility Contractors Accountable for Failing to Meet Performance Standards,” January 29, 2019,

[19] Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, “ICE’s Inspections and Monitoring of Detention Facilities Do Not Lead to Sustained Compliance or Systemic Improvements,” June 26, 2018,

[20] Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, “Border Patrol Needs a Staffing Model to Better Plan for Hiring More Agents,” February 28, 2019,

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