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Activists Play Whack-a-Mole Closing ICE Detention Centers

by David M. Reutter

A Bloomberg Equality report published on January 11, 2022, gave little hope that the omicron variant behind a resurgence in the COVID-19 pandemic would spare immigrant detainees held for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with 1,254 people in isolation out of 22,142 in custody, a 340 percent increase in just eight days. The news is bound to frustrate activists already run ragged by attempts to get local governments to abolish contracts to hold immigrant detainees in their jails and prisons for ICE, because it seems as soon as one closes, the agency simply moves its detainees somewhere more friendly—often, as a recent Washington Post article noted, where they are farther from loved ones and free legal aid.

That December 1, 2021, report carried a markedly less triumphant tone than an earlier one on March 15, 2021, when 24 members of the House of Representatives urged the Biden-Harris administration to “immediately enact an additional Executive Order to phase out contracts between ICE and/or the USMS [U.S. Marshall’s Service] with states, counties, and municipalities for the purpose of immigration detention,” in a letter to Susan Rice, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

That letter, authored by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), applauded the Biden Administration’s January 26, 2021, “Executive Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities.” That order instructed the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) to phase out contracts with private prisons and prohibited any from being renewed or any new ones being signed. However, USMS is using intergovernmental agreements to circumvent it. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.28.]

Moreover, while the order represents some progress in the drive to end private prison profiteering, it fails to address the greatest growth area for private prison operators: immigration. So now more than 70 Congressional Offices have called for expanding the Executive Order to include privately run immigration detention facilities operated for ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and not DOJ.

Omar’s letter endorsed such an expansion, but she also took it a step further by asking for “an additional Executive Order announcing a plan to phase out contracts between ICE and state, county, and local jails and prisons.” She noted that “ICE operates a sprawling network of more than 200 detention facilities.”

A 2019 report by the Brookings Institution found that 49% of people held in ICE detention were in facilities owned by counties and another 14% were in facilities owned by cities and municipalities. PLN has reported how these types of detention contracts have created a revenue stream for those localities. Some have even expanded their jails to garner such contracts. [See: PLN, April, 2010, p. 18]

ICE also makes it very attractive for localities to reserve bed space for immigrant detainees. Louisiana sheriffs, for example, receive a per diem of $10.25 to $24.59 for each federal prisoner housed to serve a criminal sentence in a parish jail, but as of October 2019, ICE offered those sheriffs $65 per diem for housing immigrants.

“This financial incentive has fueled the expansion of immigration detention throughout the country, including in states such as Louisiana, which successfully reduced criminal incarceration levels, only to fill those same beds with immigrants,” wrote Omar.

“Profit incentives to reduce one form of incarceration at the expense of expanding another come at a particular cost to Black and Brown immigrants, who are doubly vulnerable to aggressive surveillance and incarceration in the context of the criminal justice and civil immigration enforcement,” she added.

Omar noted also that the COVID-19 pandemic presented “some of the most egregious examples of medical neglect and failure to follow public health protocols in locally operated jails and prisons.” For instance, 100% of immigrant detainees at Ohio’s Barrow County jail tested positive for COVID-19 “after jail officials used expired thermometers to conduct temperature checks and failed to implement even basic medical quarantining procedures.”

She also pointed to an incident at Massachusetts’s Bristol County jail, where dogs were unleashed and pepper spray used against detained immigrants as retaliation during the pandemic. At least two detainees were hospitalized.

Omar’s letter comes at a time when the U.S./Mexico border has seen a surge in migrant traffic headed into the country from Central America. After Biden’s election victory, caravans of immigrants began heading for the U.S., apparently feeling President Biden would be more sympathetic to their plight than the Trump Administration. A lost lesson is that the Obama/Biden Administration had more deportation orders than the Trump Administration.

In fact, the Washington Post noted, the number of immigrants in ICE custody has risen since Biden took office from about 15,000 to as high as 29,000. In February 2021, a near-record 9,547 unaccompanied children were taken into custody by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). That was the most since May 2019.

U.S. law requires the children to be moved into care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours after being taken into CBP custody. But the mass influx of child detainees has rendered that deadline hard to achieve. A CBP tent facility in Donna, Texas, was housing more than 1,000 children and teenagers in March 2021. Also in March, the Biden Administration opened the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas to hold 3,000 teenage immigrant detainees.

Omar’s letter urged a stance to end profiteering off the backs of immigrants. But achieving that with the ongoing crisis at the border is going to be a monumental task, one made even thornier by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

Sources: Bloomberg Equality, The Guardian, Washington Post

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