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Two-Thirds of Voters Want to Stop the Expansion of For-Profit Immigrant Detention

GEO and ICE grievance boxes at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.
The administration should listen to the voters and end its misguided pursuit of new detention contracts with for-profit, private prison corporations.
GEO and ICE grievance boxes at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.
Brian Tashman,
Former Deputy Division Director,
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January 12, 2022

A recent poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and YouGov found that 68 percent of voters want the federal government to stop pursuing contracts with for-profit prison corporations to open private immigrant detention centers. Americans have become more aware of the inhumane conditions and twisted business model of the private prison industry, and want President Biden to follow through on his promise to “end for-profit detention centers.”

President Biden has repeatedly expressed strong and deep-seated opposition to the use of for-profit prisons to detain immigrants and called for their closure. In April 2021, the president told immigrant rights activists in Georgia that “there should be no private prisons, period, none, period. Private detention centers, they should not exist, and we are working to close all of them.”

Despite having a popular mandate to end the practice, the Biden administration has continued to go against its own stated policy and values — along with the wishes of the majority of Americans — by seeking out new contracts with private prison companies to detain immigrants throughout the country.

During his successful campaign, Biden’s “Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants” included this unequivocal pledge: “End for-profit detention centers. No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence.”

Similarly, Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” stated that he will “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.”

This pledge has broad support from the American people, and they want the president to follow through.

Shortly after his inauguration, the president issued an executive order to phase out its contracts with private prison companies, but the order did not apply to private immigrant detention facilities, where nearly 80 percent of detained immigrants are held, often in brutal conditions.

This loophole gave private prison corporations an opportunity to land new contracts and stay in the business of incarcerating people. For-profit companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group have worked to turn facilities whose federal contracts to imprison people for the Department of Justice ended under the executive order into immigrant detention facilities. That way, they can make new lucrative contracts that profit off human misery.

While Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced his intention to shut down inhumane facilities in spring 2021, DHS is now moving to award new contracts to private prison companies.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has already started contracting with one private facility in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania and may soon enter contracts with for-profit, private prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas and Mason, Tennessee. These locations, as is too often the case in immigrant detention, have troubling records of abusive conditions and are located far away from communities with immigration attorneys, making it difficult for people to pursue their cases.

There are even signals that ICE may expand a private immigrant detention center run by the for-profit GEO Group in Georgia, the very state where the president promised voters that he planned to close all private detention centers.

Following a sharp decline in 2020 partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people held in immigrant detention has started to swell once again, increasing by more than 50 percent since Biden took office. Now, as cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 surge, the need to fulfill the president’s repeated pledge to end for-profit immigrant detention has become even more urgent. The administration should be releasing people from detention as a public health measure, but so far has not announced its intention to do so in any systematic way. Meanwhile, people aren’t receiving booster shots and are typically confined to tight, crowded spaces where it is impossible to socially distance, leading to waves of new COVID-19 infections.

The administration should listen to the voters — and President Biden — and end its misguided pursuit of new detention contracts with for-profit, private prison corporations.

It’s time to close private prisons and shut down the immigrant detention machine notorious for COVID-19 surges, physical brutality, sexual abuse, racist mistreatment, and denials of due process, not expand it.

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