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President Joe Biden promised as a candidate to “end for-profit detention centers,” where many children and families who enter the country illegally are held, but his administration is finding the commitment to improve conditions for undocumented immigrants difficult to fulfill, particularly in a pandemic.
Less than a week after taking office, Biden ordered the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prison companies. But he did not expand the directive to include the Homeland Security Department, which oversees immigration detention centers.
That lack of action has surprised and frustrated some administration allies and immigrant advocacy groups, who argue that privately operated facilities are dangerous and have suggested alternatives to Biden’s team, including releasing undocumented immigrants to live with family members in the United States while they await their court dates.
“It’s not just a little thing to gloss over, to not include these facilities in the executive order,” said Thomas Kennedy, state coordinator for the Florida chapter of United We Dream. “Our expectation is that all for-profit prison detention center contracts should be phased out immediately.”
The Biden administration’s hesitation to phase out the use of for-profit detention facilities comes as it seeks to broadly reset the country’s immigration agenda, including rolling back many of former President Donald Trump’s policies and proposing legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants living in the country to eventually become citizens.
The White House initiatives have won praise from immigration advocates, even as some of them begin to grow anxious that the president hasn’t taken immediate action on other campaign pledges, including one to eliminate federal contracts with private companies that operate immigration detention centers.
Biden remains concerned about detention facilities, the White House said this month, insisting that it is up to the Department of Homeland Security to make recommendations to the president, even though it was Biden who directed the Justice Department to phase out the use of private prisons.
Private companies operate the bulk of the nation’s more than 200 existing immigration detention centers that advocacy groups say are unjust and inhumane.
An estimated 81% of immigrants who are in detention are held at privately-run facilities, according to the Detention Watch Network, a group that is seeking to abolish immigration detention in the United States.
Advocates describe the privately run detention centers as de facto prisons, where immigrants are confined in close, restrictive quarters. Reports from the DHS Office of Inspector General, they point out, have cited some of these facilities for providing inadequate medical care and unsafe conditions.
“This is the worst part of the worst aspect of the immigration enforcement system,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director for the Center for Migration Studies. “And it needs to be addressed. And if it doesn’t get addressed now, it may never be.”
A CAMPAIGN PROMISE
Kerwin and other advocates have outlined proposals to the Biden administration to replace the detention system altogether, many of which hinge on letting families or social welfare organizations house the immigrants in facilities that are less like a prison.
In their view, only the most dangerous undocumented immigrants should be kept in a detention facilities, arguing that the vast majority of them do show up for their court dates no matter where they’re staying.
“These are people who are not really posing a threat to our national security. Civil society groups are willing to take them in and are willing to do the heavy lifting, and so we should take advantage of that,” said Iman Boukadoum, who leads The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ immigration work.
The American Immigration Council said in a report that 96% of immigrants who were represented by a lawyer showed up to their court hearings over a ten-year period.
It’s an argument Biden accepted during the campaign. Asked about detention centers and family reunification at a 2019 campaign event in South Carolina, he told a crowd that immigrants typically show up for their court dates. “Close them down. By the way, we don’t need them,” Biden said of detention centers. “We don’t have to keep kids in a cage.”
Biden’s campaign website said that if elected, he would “End for-profit detention centers” and “End prolonged detention and reinvest in a case management program.”
But the Biden administration acknowledged this week that it was struggling to find an alternative to detention facilities as it warned asylum seekers that, except in extremely limited circumstances, they would be turned away at the border while the nation battles the coronavirus.
“Due to the pandemic and the fact that we have not had the time as an administration to put in place a humane comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border, now is not the time to come, and the vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately, will take time to implement,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a media briefing.
Psaki said the plight of migrants is “obviously an emotional issue for many of us who have worked on this in the past for the president himself” and insisted the Biden administration needs more time to achieve the president’s immigraton proposals.
The number of apprehensions at the U.S. border fell by 53% in fiscal year 2020, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, as COVID-19 raged and governments closed their borders. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that its detained population fell to approximately 20,000 people a day by the end of the last fiscal year after it temporarily narrowed its focus to criminals and public safety threats during the pandemic.
But in fiscal year 2019, ICE reported taking into custody 510,854 people who illegally entered the country, an increase of 27% from a year prior, which it attributed to increased law enforcement activity at the southwest border.
The average daily population of all detention facilities in the United States was more than 50,165 immigrants, and according to ICE, the average length of stay for each immigrant in detention facilities was 34.3 days in fiscal year 2019.
Immigration advocates acknowledge that it will not be as easy for Biden to move away from for-profit immigration detention centers as it will be for his administration to phase out private prisons. Unlike the prison population, immigrants are not detained for defined periods of time and they are frequently shuttled between facilities.
But advocates are pushing for Biden to make it an urgent priority. Two people have died while in ICE custody this year, one of them from complications from the coronavirus.
COVID-19 can spread quickly in confined spaces, and it is exacerbating the problem, advocates said.
Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, said it was a “race against time” to begin removing some of the detained immigrants before they are exposed to the virus.
“It’s really very urgent,” Mishori said. “We need to do it now. The pandemic is not getting much better right now.”