Advocates say conditions at U.S. immigration detention centers are getting worse, even after years of investigations, calls to action and pledges to improve the civilian incarceration system.
Early in his tenure, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered two detention centers shuttered, and he has since closed a handful more.
“Allow me to state one foundational principle: we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” Mayorkas said in a memo to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acting Director Tae Johnson in March of 2021.
Even as Biden administration officials have vowed to reduce immigration detention, multiple organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, have consistently highlighted the flaws in the system.
Still, ICE and private detention center operators such as CoreCivic and the GEO Group have been dogged by consistent reports of abuse, neglect and mismanagement.
One location, the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, N.M., received such poor marks in a September inspection that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General “recommended, and continue[s] to recommend, the immediate relocation of all Torrance detainees unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions.”
That report followed a March “management alert” by DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, who recommended “that detainees should be immediately removed from this facility.”
That recommendation was not followed.
ICE continued to populate the facility, bringing in upwards of 200 new detainees starting on Christmas Eve, according to Ana Ortiz Varela, a program manager at Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit that combines legal, political and technological tools to fight against mistreatment and deportations.
“It actually started on Christmas Eve,” said Ortiz Varela. “And it was Christmas for them, because they’re Latino. Like for them, that’s Christmas Day.”
An investigation conducted by the Innovation Law Lab at Torrance between January and February and released Wednesday found “the men are subjected to conditions worse than those that formed the basis for the DHS Office of the Inspector General’s recommendation to end operations at Torrance in March 2022.”
The report, based largely on first-hand accounts by detainees, found “a disturbing picture of the conduct of US Government officials and CoreCivic employees who manage the facility day to day.”
CoreCivic is a private company that operates dozens of detention and correctional facilities throughout the country.
“Much of the recent reporting about [Torrance] has been inaccurate and misleading. The reality is that we provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to us at [Torrance] and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care,” said Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic.
Reports of abuse and subpar conditions in immigration detention centers are far from exclusive to Torrance.
Advocates say conditions at the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) near Seattle reached a breaking point early this month, when a group of 85 detainees in one unit began a hunger strike.
Allegations regarding that facility’s installations, inmate services and incidences of detainee abuse are so notorious that the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights has been investigating conditions at NWIPC since 2017.
The hunger strike, which has since ended, led to some concessions for the striking unit — advocates report detainees receive chicken rather than soy-based meals — but only after significant uproar.
“We have never seen a demonstration being put out by gas canisters thrown to them. That was new to us. Not saying that they haven’t done it, maybe they’ve done it before, but not to hunger strikers that we’ve worked with,” said Maru Mora-Villalpando, a community organizer with La Resistencia, a group that’s focused on abuses at NWIPC.
NWIPC is run by the GEO Group, which operates 51 secure facilities for federal, state and local governments throughout the United States.
A spokesperson for GEO characterized the early February disruption at the facility thusly: “An incident occurred at the Northwest ICE Processing Center involving a small group of high-security detainees that were behaving in a disruptive manner, barricading themselves inside of their housing unit, and blocking security cameras, which provide additional safety for other detainees and staff.”
The spokesperson added that “chemical agents” were used but no detainees were injured, while rejecting the allegations of poor conditions and abuse.
“We strongly reject these allegations, which are clearly part of a politically motivated and choreographed effort to abolish ICE. There is currently no hunger strike at the Northwest ICE Processing Center, and residents are provided three meals daily based on nutritional menus approved by a registered dietician free of charge, in accordance with the federal government’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.”
Representatives for both CoreCivic and GEO pointed to ICE as the ultimate arbiters and enforcers of immigration detention standards.
ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Reports of detainee mistreatment in immigration detention are so widespread and commonplace that advocates say non-criminal immigration detention itself is the problem.
“As long as the U.S. government has been jailing people as part of the immigration process, it’s been a concern,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
And ICE detention costs taxpayers $2.9 billion a year for a detainee population that’s averaged 25,978 people per month since June of 2019, according to numbers from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data monitoring project at Syracuse University.
Even discounting the alleged patterns of abuse, the practice of keeping non-criminal immigrants in detention has been broadly denounced both domestically and internationally, as it subjects people without criminal charges to prison-like conditions for indeterminate amounts of time.
“That the detention doesn’t have an end date is important in terms of the impact on people who are detained. So think in terms of the psychological damage that immigration detention does — the indefinite nature of it, which is different from the criminal legal system, is just really, really insidious,” Altman said.
Immigration detention has often been portrayed as a necessity to keep deportable immigrants from evading authorities in hopes of staying in the country.
While incarceration does keep deportable foreign nationals within reach of ICE, advocates say nearly 100 percent of immigrants with legal representation show up for hearings and meetings with ICE agents.
And ICE has alternatives to the detention program, which include electronic surveillance methods such as ankle bracelets and phone-like tablets given to migrants so they can be tracked.
On Monday, 36 House Democrats led by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) and Nanette Diaz Barragán (Calif.) called on the Biden administration to give additional funding to the Case Management Pilot Program (CMPP), which provides legal assistance to immigrants in deportation proceedings.
“Previous case management programs were highly effective in producing compliance with immigration proceedings. For instance, the Family Case Management Program (FCMP) enjoyed a strong record of success, producing compliance rates of 99 percent for compliance with court hearings and immigration appointments, at a cost of only $36 per day per family compared to adult detention, which costs up to $232 per person per day,” wrote the lawmakers.
Despite the alternative programs, the number of ICE detainees has remained steady during the Biden administration, and a majority of detainees neither face criminal charges nor have a criminal record.
According to TRAC, ICE had 24,170 detainees at the end of January, 14,732 of whom had no criminal charges or records.
Many of those detainees complain about living conditions, cruel treatment, food, and alleged overuse of solitary confinement and diminished or lack of access to the asylum process.
For one detained migrant who spoke to The Hill from Torrance, the experience has been worse than threats from criminal gangs that made him flee.
“I would have preferred to stay in my country, for them to take my life there rather than being a prisoner here, because I had never in my life been in jail,” they said.
“I would already be out of this because in death one is better off, one doesn’t suffer, doesn’t agonize, doesn’t feel anything, doesn’t go through toil, or the fight that one is going through here, and living here.”
—Updated at 2:12 p.m.