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The Business of Mistreating Migrants

Updated: Mar 31

Cameron Roberts

"No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence." This was President Biden's outlook on the campaign trail in 2020. But his radical executive order released six days after he was inaugurated that banned the renewal of private prison contracts was silent on the topic of private immigration detention centers. Unfortunately, Biden’s actions have contradicted the promises he made four years ago. Since being elected, Biden has completely changed his tune on private immigration detention centers, expanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with top private prison corporations such as GEO Blue and CoreCivic, with his administration claiming their “closure would be “catastrophic” to federal immigration efforts.” Furthermore, he has signed into law spending bills that guarantee billions of dollars for private solutions to the crisis at the US border. 

The number of immigrants detained daily by ICE has nearly doubled since Biden entered office, with an average of 30,000 being detained per day in 2023 compared to 15,444 in 2021. As 80% of detained immigrants are held in private detention centers, it is becoming abundantly clear that those in the business of detaining migrants are doing better than ever.

The Rise of Private Detention in the US 

The process of detaining migrants began in the US in 1882, and since then, has primarily been used to detain individuals who are currently in removal proceedings. These include migrants who are waiting to hear about the status of their asylum application or non-citizens waiting to hear about the extension of their temporary residence permits, among other things. Detention centers also house migrants who violate US law, per the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which requires mandatory detention for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to

felonies. While initially a project under the purview of the US government, immigration detention in recent decades has been outsourced to private prison corporations, most notably CoreCivic and Geo Blue. 

In 2017, the two top players in the private prison industry made a combined $4 billion in revenue from operating private detention centers in the US. Operating immigration and non-immigration detention, these two companies make up half of all private detention contracts with the US government. As of February 11th of this year, over 35,000 immigrants are being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. 66% of those have no criminal record. The primary purpose of immigration detention centers is to hold individuals in the midst of immigration proceedings before they know their status. For many immigrants, this interim period is indefinite, and every day they stay in a detention center bed, more money is paid to contractors. In the early 2000s, the Department of Homeland Security had its federal funding guarantees tied to detention center bed quotas. Starting “in 2004, Congress enacted the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which required DHS to expand detention capacity by 8,000 beds per year from FY 2006 through FY 2010.” It wasn’t until FY 2017 that quotas were removed from DHS funding guarantees. But after more than a decade of tying money to the expansion of immigration detention centers, the damage is seemingly irreversible. The privatization of immigration detention centers encourages detention and allows the US government to keep immigrants waiting instead of dealing with the massive onslaught of asylum applications in recent months. 

The quickest part of the immigration process in the US is placement into a detention center. In all other aspects, speed is a nonissue for the government. In 2019, immigrants spent an average of 55 days in ICE-contracted detention centers, a mean skewed by the detainees who are quickly deported upon arrival. Some cases see immigrants spend the duration of their immigration proceedings in detention, with a 2013 lawsuit in California proving that longer detention times are common; those who applied for relief from removal were in detention for an average of 421 days. Immigration detention centers are a key fixture in the US immigration policy arsenal, and in recent months, they only have become more relevant to the Biden Administration. But with more detention centers come more problems for which migrants will pay the price. 

The Tragic Reality of Private Immigration Detention 

The rules which govern detention centers are weak guardrails, which results in the perpetuation of a system that enables abuse against non-citizens. All immigration detention centers in the US are subject to the same set of rules laid out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). There are federal standards for how migrants should be treated, but the respect paid to them by privately operated facilities falls far below those standards. A consistent pattern of these facilities operating with impunity has further shown that guidelines are not enough to prevent abuses and that mistreatment has become business as usual. Horrifying testimony from migrants within detention centers reveals that tactics such as refusal of medical attention, punishment for expressing thoughts of self-harm, and sexual assault run rampant in private detention facilities. The very facilities framed as a national security imperative to “protect” Americans from incoming migrants have morphed into places that enable human rights abuses and protect the guards who perpetrate these criminal acts. These abuses are not just revealed through stories told by detainees but are also well documented by the US government. In 2022, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that revealed “nearly 15,000 instances of solitary confinement…registered in immigrant detention from fiscal years 2017 to 2021.” The conditions in private detention facilities have been under fire from the United Nations as well, which contends that the treatment of migrants amounts to violations under the Convention Against Torture. The period from April 2018 to 2020 saw 35 people die in ICE custody—26 died from medical causes, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the remaining 9 from suicide. These deaths are completely preventable and entirely attributed to the inhumane conditions within detention centers. The tragic loss of life coupled with the lasting trauma immigrants who leave detention are stuck with is reason enough to push for change, but the current system may be irredeemable. 

Where Do We Go From Here? 

The US government funds and oversees the detention centers, meaning they are constantly under scrutiny. But no amount of GAO reports or stern words from DHS leadership can fix the current situation. A solution heralded by prominent social justice groups such as the ACLU and the National Immigrant Justice Center is shutting down detention centers entirely. Some states are already in the process of doing so. In 2020, California passed Assembly Bill 32, which banned the creation of new and continued contracts for private immigration detention centers. In 2021, New Jersey passed AB 5207, which prohibited new or renewed contracts for all immigration detention facilities within county jails as well as those that are privately owned. Both laws are facing fierce battles in court as companies such as CoreCivic claim their contracts with ICE do not fall under state jurisdiction. The possibility of a federal ban seems unlikely, especially as Biden gears up for the 2024 election, with a recent poll revealing “42 percent of Americans overall – including 72 percent of Republicans – said they felt that if the U.S. is too open, it runs the risk of losing its identity.” A tough stance on immigration is how he can best appeal to voters, meaning the calls for closing private immigration detention centers when campaigning in 2020 have become a policy position of the past. Justice for migrants is crucial for the reputation of the United States as a self-declared leader in human rights around the world. But more crucially, justice is deserved for the countless migrants who flee to the US to seek safety and instead find dehumanizing conditions, sometimes even worse than the ones they fled. Change may seem far off, but the urgency for it is more pressing than ever.


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