AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Aside from the border wall, there's another sticking point in the negotiations between the Trump administration and Democrats to avoid another partial government shutdown - a cap on the number of detention beds for immigrants picked up inside the U.S. Now, Democrats want a limit of 16,500 beds, which they say was the number of interior detentions in the final months of the Obama administration.
Now, to help explain this idea, we're joined in studio by Randy Capps. He's with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that's been monitoring the Trump administration's immigration policies. Welcome to the program.
RANDY CAPPS: Thanks for having me on.
CORNISH: So just to be clear, this proposal from Democrats would limit the number of beds for people arrested within the interior of the U.S. - right? - not those who have just crossed the border.
CAPPS: That's right. I mean, as it is now, we know that there's a generally congressionally appropriated amount for total detention beds. But there's no limit on how much of that's supposed to be for border arrests versus interior arrests.
CORNISH: So how many people, right now, is the Trump administration holding?
CAPPS: Yeah, right now the total number of people in detention is about 49,000. This is up almost 50 percent from an average day of 34,000 at the end of the Obama administration. This total of 49,000 includes people who are picked up at the border as well as those who are arrested by ICE inside the United States. The latest number for those arrested inside the United States held in detention is 21,000.
CORNISH: So what is the goal of putting a limit? Politically, policy-wise, why would Democrats be pushing for this?
CAPPS: Well, politically of course it's a tradeoff, that the Democrats want to have something in exchange for appropriating more money for the wall. Policy-wise, it's an attempt to go back to the end of the Obama administration when there were clear priorities for who should be arrested, detained and deported. It should be people with serious criminal convictions or people who recently entered the United States.
CORNISH: So what do you mean by priorities? What's happened now, under the Trump administration?
CAPPS: Well, the Trump administration, really as one of their first acts in the first week of the new administration, issued an executive order saying that anyone who's convicted of any crime, charged with any crime - even having committed a crime but not been yet charged or perceived to be a public safety threat - was a priority for deportation. And that was later interpreted to mean everyone in the unauthorized immigrant population is subject to arrest and detention.
CORNISH: So it cast a much wider net. And Democrats are now trying to limit this, right?
CAPPS: Well, with fewer detention beds available, then it's incumbent on ICE to make choices, right? Is this person really the top priority for that detention bed? Or does it need to be used at the border? Or is this a person that could be released because they're not a public safety threat?
I mean, another thing that the Trump administration did was they also decided once they arrest people, that they will always keep them in detention - or almost always, if they have the capacity - until they get deported, while the Obama administration was more likely to release people with ankle monitoring bracelets or other devices.
CORNISH: What are you going to be listening for next out of this debate that'll give us some signals about where it's going?
CAPPS: Well, it'll be interesting to see whether or not they talk about the total number of detention beds, as opposed to just those that are used for people arrested in the interior, and what they're going to do about the fact that the Trump administration's now detaining 9,000 people more than they're authorized to do so.
That may become part of the negotiations as well. I'll also be listening to see whether there are other constraints imposed on ICE by the Democratic Congress besides the detention beds.
CORNISH: Randy Capps is director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. Thanks for coming in.
CAPPS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.