By Stephen Dinan
The Washington Times
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Buried inside the Senate’s massive spending bill is a provision eliminating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Public Advocate — an office President Obama created just last year to hear complaints about how immigrants were being treated.

“With illegal immigration costing U.S. taxpayers roughly $113 billion each year, one of the last things we should be doing with precious taxpayer dollars is funding an activist for illegal and criminal immigrants who are detained or have been ordered to be deported,” said Rep. Diane Black, the Tennessee Republican who has led the fight to cancel the office’s funding.

“The administration needs to instead be using this money for its intended purpose of securing our borders and combating illegal immigration,” she said.

The advocacy position is one of several hot-button spending issues that will confront Congress as it rushes to pass the broad bill, which finances all operations throughout the government, before funding runs out this month. It also comes amid a broader budget debate over long-term taxes and spending.

The bill, which runs 587 pages long, was released late Monday night, and Senate Democrats tried to push it onto the floor Tuesday only to be met with Republican objections that put off action for at least a day.

“Everyone should understand that [we’re] delaying on this because they want to read the bill more deeply, I guess — doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who was trying to allow for amendments to be debated Tuesday.

Sen. Tom Coburn retorted that he thought part of his job was to read legislation.

“We just heard the majority leader say he can’t understand why somebody wants to read this bill,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “That’s one of the problems, one of the reasons we’re $17 trillion in debt is people don’t read the bills.”

The bill is designed to fund basic government operations for the rest of fiscal year 2013, which runs through Sept. 30. House lawmakers passed their version last week, preserving the $85 billion in sequester spending cuts but giving the Obama administration some flexibility to adjust money within the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

The Senate version adds flexibility for Homeland Security, Justice and several other federal agencies.

Aides said many parts of the bill have been pre-negotiated with House lawmakers so that this version can clear the lower chamber and be signed into law, averting the chance for a government shutdown at the end of the month.

Tucked inside the bill are provisions that would freeze civilian pay levels; crack down on gun-walking operations such as the botched Operation Fast and Furious; control federal spending for luxurious travel and conferences; and require any new airport screening program to consider privacy and civil liberties concerns before it goes into effect.

Mr. Coburn and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said their initial examination of the bill revealed pork projects that the two men want to eliminate, including $65 million for Pacific Coast salmon restoration, $15 million extra for the Civil Air Patrol, and $993,000 in grants to dig wells for private-property owners.

But eliminating the immigration-advocate position stands out because it appears to be a rebuke to Mr. Obama, yet Senate Democrats included it in their bill.

The move was made in the middle of a burgeoning immigration debate on Capitol Hill and at a time when the Obama administration is taking heat for having released immigrants from detention and back into the community over the sequester budget cuts, even as they are awaiting deportation.

The administration created the ICE advocate position in February 2012 to respond to criticism that the agency was too unresponsive to the needs of those it investigated or detained. It was designed as an ombudsman, and immigrant rights advocates said it has become an important tool.

“The answer in Washington for decades on illegal immigration was to throw money at ICE and enforcement and now that we are in austere times, they are cutting one of the essential programs at ICE that actually works,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. “The only hope for recourse when enforcement goes bad is to call on the ICE Public Advocate, which seems to me like an essential tool in holding ICE accountable to the public.”

But Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, the union representing 7,600 ICE officers and agents, called the Public Advocate office “nothing but waste, fraud and abuse” and said “we applaud Congress‘ efforts to defund the program.”

He said it makes no sense to have 20 or 30 contractors or federal employees, including some trained law enforcement officers, detailed to Washington for 30-day stints manning a hotline.

“Officers who have worked the phone line report that the No. 1 question asked by criminal detainees is, ‘When is my court date?’ — a question that can, of course, be answered locally without the additional costs of an advocacy office,” Mr. Crane said. “This program doesn’t appear to be doing anything productive for the agency and in our opinion represents everything that’s wrong with government spending.”

An ICE spokesman declined to comment on the proposal to eliminate the office, saying the agency doesn’t talk about pending legislation. A call to the public advocate office was not returned Tuesday.

The White House, though, released a statement broadly supporting the entire package.

“The administration urges the Congress to promptly pass this bipartisan compromise allowing critical government functions to operate without interruption in order to protect national security and ensure that Americans continue to receive vital services and benefits,” the White House budget office said in its statement of policy.

Senate spending bill includes elimination of new ICE office - Washington Times