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Families detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, in 2018.

How Trump Inherited His Expanding Detention System

The number of people in immigration detention has increased under every presidential administration for more than 25 years.

It looks like Congress may have reached a deal on immigration enforcement and border security to avoid another government shutdown, but President Trump says he is not happy. One of the major stumbling blocks in the negotiation has been an argument between Democrats and Republicans over limiting the number of spaces the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has available to detain immigrants while their cases are being adjudicated.

Since taking office, the Trump administration’s ramp up of immigration enforcement and the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossers has resulted in the federal government holding more migrants in detention than ever before. The average number of people in detention on any day has grown by more than 40 percent during Trump’s two years in office.

But this isn’t the first time the U.S. detention system has seen a massive expansion. A review of data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows that over the last 25 years, it has been on a nearly constant upswing as every successive presidential administration has expanded detention and deportation practices in response to the national debate on immigration.

Average Daily Population Held in U.S. Immigration Detention, By Fiscal Year

Congress and the president wrangled this week over whether to increase or contract the amount of space used to hold immigrant detainees. Long before Donald Trump became president, the system had been growing, nearly six-fold since 1994. So far this fiscal year, the average daily population in detention has been 45,890, the highest yet.

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The detention system holds people who have pending immigration court cases for removal from the country, such as those seeking asylum from repressive regimes, undocumented workers and legal residents who have committed crimes. The system has four family detention facilities, where the detainees include children, and more than 200 adult facilities that range from private prisons to county jails as well as dedicated facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Under President Bill Clinton the daily population in detention tripled from what it had been in 1994 to nearly 20,000 at the end of his second term. A pair of laws passed in 1996 and signed by Clinton resulted in a vast expansion of the system, introducing mandatory detentions for asylum seekers and legal immigrants who had committed crimes, indefinite detention and additional spending on enforcement. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush also cracked down on immigration, ending a policy in 2005 that permitted those being caught crossing the border to be released until their court dates. By the time Barack Obama took office, the average daily population had ballooned to more than 30,000.

Though detention numbers dipped briefly under Obama, by the time of the 2016 election the daily average had reached just over 34,000 after an influx of Central American migrants at the southern U.S. border. In each administration, the growth of the detention system was used to broker political compromises in lieu of dealing with an overburdened immigration system.

On Sunday, 48,747 people were being held in immigration detention, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Trump is asking to increase the number of beds used to detain migrants to 52,000 as outlined in his 2019 budget proposal, raising the budget by $4.2 billion.

As part of the federal budget negotiations over immigration, Democrats were calling for a cap of 16,500 immigrants detained within the country's interior and for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize deporting criminals. The current number of immigrants detained from the interior is 20,700, according to ICE. Democrats further sought to lower the overall daily population to fewer than 35,000, close to the last count under the Obama administration.

A new Congressional deal now under review at the White House offers an overall funding cap for 40,520 detention beds, along with $1.4 billion for border fencing. However, The New York Times reports that internal communications from Republican aides describe a possible increase of detention space for up to 58,500 people by re-allocating money to ICE using discretionary funding.

As the new deal awaits a verdict, the question of how much detention capacity will increase in the immediate future hangs in limbo. If past administrations are any indication, the system will continue to grow.