On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden vowed to end the federal government’s use of private prisons for any detention, including the detention of undocumented immigrants. Shortly after entering office, Biden delivered on one aspect of his promise, issuing an executive order to end the use of private facilities by the Department of Justice. But he still hasn’t issued a corresponding order addressing for-profit detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigrants’ rights advocates are disappointed by the administration’s inaction, demanding that Biden end immigration detention and the multibillion-dollar industry’s steady profits from caging human beings. Though the number of people in ICE detention is the lowest it’s been in years, in part because the pandemic created deadly conditions that led some facilities to depopulate, advocates say they won’t be satisfied until all immigrants in detention are free. As of January 2020, just before the pandemic began, 81 percent of people in ICE custody were held in facilities managed by private prison corporations, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report.
The agency, which has acted with impunity since its inception, botched its pandemic response, reports found, making its detention facilities “Hotbeds of Infection.” According to ICE’s statistics, a total of 14,507 people have tested positive for Covid-19 while in its custody, including 1,906 who are currently under isolation or being monitored. Private prison companies are not required to publicly disclose data on infections.
Activists and grassroots groups have been organizing around the issue of immigration detention nationwide, waging state- and local-level fights against both ICE and the companies that run the centers, where people sometimes languish in deteriorating conditions for years. Soon, New York will become the latest state to introduce legislation to end immigration detention, prohibiting county jails from entering into contracts directly with either Immigration and Customs Enforcement or private-prison companies. The legislation would also terminate existing contracts. The Dignity Not Detention Act, which is being introduced by New York State Senator Julia Salazar and Assembly member Karines Reyes, mirrors legislative efforts to take on the rogue agency in states like Maryland and California, which The Nation reported on in April.
In spite of limited policy shifts, most of the country is still operating under the same protocol that defined the Trump years. Chris Pardaise, 39, has been in ICE detention at the Hudson county facility in New Jersey for the past 20 months. The conditions at the jail are “deplorable,” he told The Nation in a phone interview, citing the food, dehumanizing treatment from staff, and lack of adequate medical care.
Up until a couple of months ago, detainees were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day to reduce the amount of time spent in communal areas. Pardaise has lived in the United States for over 15 years and, like the vast majority of people being detained by ICE, is being detained on a nonviolent charge.
“It’s not right to have people in here like animals,” he said. “The jail is getting paid $120 per detainee a day, it’s almost like $60,000, $70,000, they’ve made off of me being here already.”
Hudson County officials are reportedly considering getting out of the ICE contract, but are concerned about losing money. New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled state legislature, meanwhile, is stalling on a bill to end ICE detention. The state Senate’s Law and Public Safety committee has held hearings on the legislation, which was first introduced in December 2020, after years of fierce community protest and organizing. But no vote has been scheduled, and last week Democrats took the bill off their committee agenda.
New York has largely stepped away from the private prison industry, but GEO Group, which operates New York City’s lone private jail, the Queens Detention Facility, said it “expects to market” the facility “to other government agencies” now that the corporation has lost its contract with the federal government. Tania Mattos, policy and Northeast monitoring manager at Freedom for Immigrants, said that private prison giants like GEO Group and CoreCivic see immigrants as a “lucrative business.” These corporations are shifting toward contracts with ICE and other agencies, especially after Biden’s executive order began phasing out their usual federal contracts.
“They sort of see the opportunity to detain more people,” Mattos said. “Because of the racist and xenophobic laws that exist, all these states are funneling people into these facilities—picking up people, especially when they’re drunk—and it continues to happen even under Biden. Immigrants are detained for disorderly conduct or something very small, where they are in jail for maybe a day or two, but depending on the county, you have ICE waiting in the back door because police hand people over to immigration.”
Mattos added that the New York legislation has broad support from Democratic lawmakers, grassroots groups around the state, and even local legal service providers, so organizers are optimistic about the bill’s chances of making it out of committee and being passed. The obstacle, she predicts, will be getting the legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In recent years, state legislatures in California, Washington, and Illinois have moved to ban the profiteering model of immigration detention centers that drastically expanded under former President Donald Trump. Similar movements have been gaining momentum at a local and site-to-site level in states like Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts, and Iowa. The ACLU is also pushing for Biden to follow through on his campaign promises, urging the Department of Homeland Security to close 39 of the more than 200 detention centers ICE operates.
“We believe that we can, as we’ve seen out of this pandemic, create systems of supporting our own community,” Mattos continued. “So there are models that exist that would actually be more encompassing of what the individual needs—and people are there just on immigration holds, it’s not for any other reason. They should be at home with their families and with their communities and wait for an opportunity to see a judge to adjust their status or get asylum. They don’t necessarily have to be in immigration detention.”