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Trump’s 2021 budget proposal doesn’t stop at the border wall

Immigration detention and the immigration enforcement agencies would get a big boost.

US President Donald Trump visits the US-Mexico border fence in Otay Mesa, California, on September 18, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Donald Trump may be proposing trillions in spending cuts over the next decade in his 2021 budget request — but none of the cuts would affect the immigration enforcement agencies, which would instead get a significant boost.

The president would invest heavily in construction of his southern border wall, expanding immigration detention and staffing up the immigration agencies. It’s another way to show voters that he’s tough on immigration as he goes up for reelection.

During his time in office, Trump has built, layer by layer, impediments in Central America, at the border, in detention centers, and in the immigration courts that have made obtaining asylum nearly impossible.

And he has swept aside former President Barack Obama’s immigration enforcement priorities in favor of vastly expanding immigration detention and prosecuting every immigrant who crosses the border without authorization. The result is a punitive system that treats immigrants as criminals and places them in prolonged detention even if they don’t pose any danger to the public.

His budget proposal for the coming fiscal year would continue to advance that agenda.

The proposal includes $2 billion to construct an additional 82 miles of wall, which is likely to face pushback among the House’s Democratic majority. Trump has already constructed 101 miles of wall and plans to construct an additional 475 miles, according to the proposal, costing an estimated $18.4 billion and making it the most expensive wall of any kind worldwide.

Trump has sparred with Congress for years over funding for the wall, his signature campaign promise from 2016. It even led to a government shutdown in December 2018 after he refused to sign a funding bill that offered anything less than $5 billion for the wall. And after Congress refused to give him what he wanted, he sidestepped Democratic lawmakers and redirected military funds to border wall construction anyway with the Supreme Court’s blessing.

But this year’s funding request goes much further than just Trump’s border wall: It represents a massive expansion of the administration’s immigration enforcement apparatus, of which the wall is only a small part.

Trump would scale up immigration detention and the administration’s capacity to take migrant children into custody. He’s asking for $3.1 billion to increase the capacity of immigration detention centers to house 60,000 people at any given time, even though Congress had previously ordered him to decrease capacity to about 40,000 and the existence of viable alternatives to detention. And he wants $4 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children once they’re transferred from immigration custody to the Department of Health and Human Services.

His budget proposal also calls for a total of $1.6 billion to significantly increase staffing across the immigration agencies. He would hire another 1,050 Border Patrol officials, more than 4,600 new US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and 100 new immigration judges in an effort to drive down their over 1 million-case backlog and additional support staff.

He would also allocate a total of $126 million to support his Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, under which more than 60,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to wait on a decision on their asylum applications in the US. The vast majority of that money would go to the operation of temporary tent court facilities in US border towns, where Democrats say migrants affected by MPP aren’t getting fair hearings.

What the administration could be funding instead

While immigration enforcement would get a big boost under Trump’s funding proposal, resources supporting immigrants would get slashed.

Most significantly, the proposal would cut foreign aid by 21 percent. It not only represents an abdication of the US’s obligations to aid Central American countries struggling with their own migration crises, but, as my colleague Alex Ward writes, it could actually deepen those problems.

Hundreds of thousands have fled violence and the lack of economic opportunity in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — collectively known as Central America’s Northern Triangle — over the past several years.

After Trump froze $450 million in aid to those three countries last year, more migrants from there started arriving at the US border. Last May, the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border, most of which were from Northern Triangle countries, peaked at 130,000 (though those numbers have since declined).

Eric Schwartz, the president of the refugee advocacy group Refugees International, said in a statement that the cuts to international and humanitarian aid defy bipartisan majorities in Congress and would be a “flight from US leadership” on helping the most vulnerable.

“The irony is that President Trump, Secretary [Mike] Pompeo, and others in the Trump administration continually boast about the generosity of the United States,” he said. “It’s high time that their actions match their words.”

Trump’s emphasis on immigration enforcement in his budget proposal also ignores other deficiencies in the immigration system that could be rectified with more funding.

For example, there’s a shortage of asylum officers and translators available to help process migrants at the border, many of whom are forced to live in dangerous, inhumane conditions in Mexico while they wait for an answer on their asylum applications. To deal with the shortage, the administration has instead resorted to appointing US Customs and Border Protection officers to conduct initial asylum screenings, which the American Civil Liberties Union has called a “blatant effort to rig the system against asylum seekers.”

Hiring more asylum officers could help shorten the time migrants have to wait and would improve their access to a fair, non-adversarial process.

There are also about 700,000 immigrants waiting for their naturalization applications to be processed for an average of 10 to 18 months — far longer than the six months they’re supposed to wait under immigration law. Immigrants in the military can have even longer wait times.

It’s no surprise that wait times have skyrocketed since Trump has increased vetting of all legal immigrants. But he hasn’t invested enough in beefing up staffing at US Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency tasked with processing visa, green card, and citizenship applications — to keep up with the increased workload.

And that’s only a couple of examples of what Trump’s funding to immigration enforcement could do.

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