President Biden signed the final 6-bill “minibus” funding package for fiscal year (FY) 2024 on March 23, which includes funding for the agencies that implement our immigration laws. This was the culmination of months of negotiations mired by attempts to insert restrictive border and immigration policy changes into the budget. While the compromise package doesn’t include these policy changes, it does provide large increases in enforcement and detention funding. However, it also includes modest but meaningful items related to legal immigration policy, backlog reduction, and transparency.

Increased Detention and Border Enforcement Funding

For the past several months, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has operated on the prior year’s funding levels due to an impasse within the House of Representatives on how to fund the federal government. This is despite increased numbers of migrants presenting themselves at the border and growing asylum case backlogs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the immigration courts. In February, it also became public that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was experiencing a $700 million shortfall and it was proposing to reduce the number of immigrants detained as a result.

Just days before the deadline to avert a partial government shutdown, House Republican leadership and White House negotiators agreed on a full-year funding package for DHS, which raised the agency’s budget by nearly $4 billion.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received a substantial boost, including funding to hire just over 2,000 more border agents. Border Patrol has struggled to hire agents under previous funding increases and most recently added a $20,000 bonus to attract new recruits. The funding agreement also includes an additional 150 CBP officers to staff ports of entry, as well as $1.7 billion for “border management.” This will include the construction of new holding facilities for migrants at the border and transportation of migrants from one detention center to another.

ICE will also see its budget expand, including a significant increase to detention funding that permits the agency to detain 41,500 people at any given time, a 24% rise over its current detention-bed capacity and one of the largest amounts of funding ever appropriated for detention. There is also a $300 million increase in the agency’s budget for removal operations, which may permit ICE to expand deportations above their current levels.

The agency’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program will increase from about $443 million to $470 million. ATD programs use phone applications, ankle monitors, and, most recently, smartwatches to monitor migrants in removal proceedings who are not in detention. According to TRAC, there were 184,038 families and individuals in these programs as of March 9, 2024. This increase comes months after the federal government expanded the Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program nationwide last year, which combines the GPS monitoring of heads of household and curfews with a fast-track asylum process.

The compromise appropriations bill also continues to fund the Case Management Pilot Program (CMPP), which uses social services—without GPS surveillance—to support migrants in their immigration process. CMPP, which is limited to a handful of cities, received $15 million dollars, a decrease of $5 million from last year’s levels.

While original DHS appropriations bill passed by the House aimed to eliminate the Shelter and Services Program, which funds nonprofits and localities providing welcoming services to recently arrived migrants, the enacted bill appropriated $650 million for it. The FY 2024 funding level represents about a 20% drop from last year’s level. Though its inclusion is a positive move for cities and nonprofits supporting migrants, this number is far below the amount needed to effectively support receiving communities.

To put this number in perspective, President Biden’s emergency supplemental request in October 2023 and the Senate’s bipartisan border deal from earlier this year both would have allocated $1.4 billion for this program.

Legal Immigration Policies and Transparency

The FY 2024 funding package also includes some meaningful items regarding legal immigration, backlog reduction, and transparency. For example, the State Department’s appropriations bill includes additional Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) to resettle Afghan nationals who supported U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. The SIV program was previously limited to 38,500 visas but, as of March 1, there were only 7,000 available. A bipartisan group of senators advocated for an additional 20,000 to meet the current needs of the program. Negotiators ultimately settled on 12,000. However, the FY 2024 budget’s joint explanatory statement directs the State Department to draft a plan by September 2024 to wind down the SIV program, which must include a timeline and cost estimate related to closing it out.

Other visa relief was included in the DHS bill too. As has been done since 2016 under similar provisions, the DHS secretary is able to exempt a certain number of “returning workers” from the H-2B visa cap. Currently, that visa, which allows temporary non-agricultural workers to work for employers in areas with a labor shortage, has a 66,000 statutory limit.

DHS will also be required to publish more information about its pending applications. Though USCIS currently provides publicly available data on all its forms, it doesn’t have an interactive dashboard like ICE and CBP. Currently, the agency publishes this information in a spreadsheet format on a quarterly basis for most forms, although not all. USCIS will also have to include the number of forms pending for more than six months for all USCIS form types, which it currently only does for certain forms. This additional information will help promote transparency and allow for a quicker identification of growing backlogs.

The bill also seeks more transparency about the numbers of individuals paroled into the United States, including the reasons parole was granted. DHS will be required to coordinate with its subagencies (USCIS, ICE and CBP) to obtain this information. In addition, DHS must also publicly post new detention-related information, such as the agency’s total detention capacity and usage rates during the previous month. Though some of this data is already published by DHS’ subagencies, it appears that these initiatives are meant to fill in gaps while consolidating existing efforts.

Backlog Reduction Funding

The DHS appropriations bill provides a modest increase in USCIS backlog reduction funding. For example, USCIS will get $34 million to address the work permit backlog, which currently has more than 423,000 initial work permits and more than 223,000 work permit renewal applications pending for more than six months. The provision also provides $34 million to USCIS to process asylum applications, of which there are nearly 1,580,000 pending as of January 2024.

Unfortunately, the bill does not provide any other funding to the agency, which recently had to increase fees on many immigration benefits to cover its operation costs.

What’s Next?

The FY 2024 appropriations cycle is finally over. While it presented an opportunity for members of Congress to grapple with the serious resource needs of our legal immigration system, the final compromise legislation continues to disproportionately fund aggressive enforcement and deterrence-based policies while continuing to underfund processing and adjudications capacity. Nevertheless, as Congress shifts its focus to planning for FY 2025, the appropriations bill gives some glimmer of hope that compromise is still possible even in the politically charged realm of immigration.