Politico

Biden weighs putting an end to private immigration detention facilities


President Joe Biden is considering an executive order to phase out government contracts with private immigrant detention facilities, multiple sources with knowledge of the process say. But he has no immediate plans to issue such an order and the White House would only say that it “will take additional action in the future relating to the detention of undocumented immigrants.”

The policy was part of a promise that Biden made while on the trail, in which he pledged to end “the federal government’s use of private prisons,” and “make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.”

But on Tuesday, the White House only acted on the first part of that promise — issuing an executive order to end the use of private prisons by the Department of Justice. And some advocacy groups say they have received mixed signals on whether the administration would do the same for Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with private detention facilities.

Two advocates told POLITICO that, as of Tuesday, they did not believe an order would ultimately materialize. The White House plans to roll out other immigration-related executive actions later this week. In a briefing on Tuesday, Susan Rice, the director of Biden’s domestic policy council, said that the order pertaining to private prisons is “silent on what may or may not transpire with ICE facilities.”

If Biden doesn’t issue a similar order for ICE contracts, it would deeply wrankle the immigrant advocacy community. Heidi Altman, policy director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said lack of action would convey that “private prisons are unacceptable for those in the criminal legal system but not those in the immigration legal system.”

“They’ve now directed DOJ to phase out the use of private prisons, meaning there is a recognition that no one should be profiting off the caging of human beings,” said Lorella Praeli, president of the grassroots group Community Change Action. “It’s a vision that’s incomplete if it does not tackle ICE detention.”

In recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has increasingly relied on private facilities to detain immigrants, a practice that intensified under the Obama administration and ballooned under the Trump administration’s hard-line enforcement and changes to the immigration system. Some 81 percent of detained immigrants in ICE’s custody were held in for-profit detention centers as of January 2020, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an ACLU report.

Progressive groups have long fought the use of private facilities, arguing that the companies that run them are able to evade accountability and leave immigrants in terrible and deteriorating conditions. They have called on the Department of Homeland Security to cancel contracts with private companies. Top progressive lawmakers support their call.

“This is great development & important step,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted after Biden signed the executive order on private prisons. But she added, “There’s more to be done to end the for-profit caging of people in the US. We must include ending for-profit immigrant detention & examine the use of for-profit services that squeeze families of the incarcerated in public prisons, too.”

The question of phasing out for-profit facilities detaining migrants came up at the end of former President Barack Obama’s administration. In his final months in office, Obama directed the Homeland Security Advisory Council to study ICE’s use of privately run detention facilities and “evaluate whether this practice should be eliminated.” In December 2016, the subcommittee tasked with the two-month study ultimately concluded in a majority vote “that a measured but deliberate shift away from the private prison model is warranted” — a move that immigrant rights activists hoped the next Democratic administration would carry out.

The report also found that ICE should look for ways to “reduce reliance on detention in county jails.”

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