Lawmakers seek details on DHS plans for detainee surge

Two House Democrats on Thursday called for the Homeland Security Department to disclose more details on possible plans to buy or lease aging cruise ships to detain illegal immigrants awaiting trial and deportation.

The letter, sent to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., seeks all documents pertaining to the Customs and Border Protection agency's potential use of cruise ships to hold illegal immigrants, which was first reported by Government Executive.

It cited "costly mistakes" the last time the government rented cruise ships -- immediately following Hurricane Katrina -- as the impetus for a congressional review of any plans to use ships again. In September 2005, the Military Sealift Command, acting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spent $236 million on three contracts with Carnival Cruise Lines to house hurricane evacuees and emergency responders.

This equated to $50,000 to give shelter to one person for six months, or nearly $300 a night. Lynch said in a recent committee hearing that posh digs at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, or at New York's Trump World Tower, could be rented for less.

"Recent experience shows that using cruise ships for temporary housing is enormously expensive," the lawmakers wrote. DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers demanded to know what DHS is doing to ensure that similar overspending would not reoccur should CBP go through with using cruise ships as detention facilities. A CBP senior source with direct knowledge of discussions within the agency confirmed that renting space on -- or buying -- aging cruise ships is under consideration.

CBP officials are contemplating the move to fulfill President Bush's call for thousands of additional beds to help end the practice of catching and releasing illegal immigrants and requiring that they appear in court for a deportation hearing. Most never show up for their hearings.

The agency is considering other options for handling the expected surge in illegal immigrants awaiting hearings, including leasing space in prisons.

Long-term needs for additional space could result in the construction of permanent structures to detain illegal aliens. In their letter to Chertoff, Waxman and Lynch also asked for more information about a $385 million contract awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers in January -- on behalf of DHS -- to KBR, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Co., to create temporary detention and processing centers to augment existing facilities.

The lawmakers requested documents relating to Halliburton's bid and selection for the detention center contract and an explanation of what audit and other oversight mechanisms will be applied to the contract.

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