ICE holds growing numbers of immigrants at private facilities despite Biden campaign promise to end practice

Some states are prohibiting immigration detention, but ICE simply moves detainees to friendlier locations.

Marwa Elessawy speaks outside of the Bergen County jail in Hackensack, N.J., where the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement held immigrant detainees facing deportation. (Hilary Swift for The Washington Post)
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HACKENSACK, N.J. — Activists fought fiercely to kick Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of the jail in this industrial city, where the red-brick tenements and glass storefronts have welcomed immigrants for generations. Detainees waged hunger strikes. Protesters blocked the road to the airport. Somebody spray-painted “free them all” on the sheriff’s suburban home.

This year, county officials had enough: Bergen County became the third jail in New Jersey to stop detaining immigrants facing deportation for the federal government. One last facility is in court trying to stay open, and Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has signed a bill that prohibits new detention facilities statewide.

The near collapse of immigration detention in New Jersey marked a significant victory for “abolish ICE” activists, but their mood these days is hardly celebratory. Instead of crippling immigration detention, they have simply relocated it. Agents transferred dozens of immigrants from New Jersey to other facilities, often run by private companies, in states such as Louisiana, Georgia and New York.

“I can’t believe they did that,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director with the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey, after ICE moved some detainees from Bergen County in November to a facility in Upstate New York.

The transfer called fresh attention to the Biden administration’s unkept campaign promise to eliminate the vast network of private jails that researchers say detain most immigrants facing deportation. But it also exposes the pitfalls of activists’ strategy to push Democratic leaders to also boot ICE from local jails, where detainees are often closer to their loved ones, advocates and free legal aid.

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“Sometimes, you know, you get what you ask for but you don’t want what you’re going to get,” U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez, an Obama appointee, told an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to stop ICE from transferring dozens of immigrants out of the Essex County jail in New Jersey last summer, when the county executive, a Democrat, said they would stop holding immigrants. “It just seems as though this was not well thought out on behalf of the advocacy groups.”

Biden had promised during his campaign to “end for-profit” detention, but he did not include ICE in his January executive order eliminating the use of private prisons. Instead he has expanded immigration detention, sometimes in the same prisons he deemed too unsafe for criminals.

Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility, a former federal prison owned by Geo Group, just reopened in Pennsylvania as a 1,994-bed detention facility, the largest in the Northeast. The 600-bed West Tennessee Detention Facility, a former prison owned by CoreCivic, may also hold immigrants, according to an inspection report posted on the agency’s website and later taken down. Officials from ICE declined to comment on the Tennessee facility. Geo Group also declined to comment. A spokesman for CoreCivic said in a statement that the company is “actively” seeking another government contract.

Officials also have renewed contracts with four Geo Group detention facilities in Florida, Colorado and Texas, and in September, they signed an agreement to open a women’s detention center in Berks County, Pa., a county-owned facility that used to house migrant families. ICE also extended its contract with the last detention center in New Jersey, CoreCivic-run Elizabeth Detention Center, company and state court records show.

Approximately 15,000 immigrants were in detention when Biden took office, the lowest number in decades, but that number has since risen as high as 29,000.

“Frankly, it’s infuriating,” said Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director for Detention Watch Network, which is tracking the detentions in a new report and says additional facilities are under consideration for expansion. The group has called on the administration to slash ICE’s $8 billion budget, including its detention spending by half. “It’s incredibly disappointing. We really expected more.”

The White House declined to comment.

Immigration officials say most detainees are recent border crossers who will be expelled or released in the United States as they continue fighting their cases. A smaller number are criminals who officials say pose a threat to public safety, but overall arrests away from the border have plunged. Officials have expelled hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border, but have formally deported little more than 56,000 from the interior as of Sept. 25.

In August, for instance, 20,531 of the 25,162 people in ICE custody were recent border crossers. Detainees’ average length of stay is about 43 days, agency data show, but some have been in detention for months or years.

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas earlier this year expressed concern about the “overuse” of detention. He has closed a pair of detention facilities investigated for abuses and turned family detention centers into short-term reception facilities — and a spokeswoman signaled that more is coming.

“Secretary Mayorkas continues to evaluate DHS detention policies and will issue additional immigration-related policy memos, including memos addressing immigration detention, in the coming weeks,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement.

The Biden administration says it is trying to grant citizenship or some form of legal status to most of the 11 million immigrants here illegally.

But advocates for immigrants say nobody should be detained for civil immigration violations — including migrants seeking asylum at the southwest border — and they are counting on the Biden administration to dismantle a detention system that under Donald Trump made anyone a target for deportation. His administration held as many as 56,000 people a day, a record and far above the 34,000 funded by Congress across nearly 200 public and private facilities nationwide.

Activists say both systems are prone to abuses and they have filed mountains of complaints against them alleging physical abuse, inadequate health care and retaliation for reporting mistreatment.

Hundreds of local jails — where ICE typically arrests people away from the border — refuse to work with the agency. New Jersey, California, Washington, Nevada and Illinois have all passed laws that limit or bar immigration detention, though a federal appeals court recently ruled in a lawsuit filed by Geo Group that the California law illegally encroached on the federal government.

In New Jersey, after Essex County declined in April to renew its contract, ICE officials said they stopped using the facility in July. Hudson County held the last detainees on Nov. 1. Officials did not respond to requests for comment, but told local media that they were open to different sources of revenue, and some sympathized with the protesters. Democrats were also sick of the constant upheaval. The county’s executive said protesters descended on his house like “the village people coming up the hill with torches,” yelling that he was racist, the Jersey Journal reported.

Bergen County stopped detaining immigrants Nov. 15, to switch to a more lucrative contract with the U.S. Marshals; a year ago, Sheriff Anthony Cureton, a Democrat, woke up and saw “free them all” scrawled on his garage.

Cureton, like some other county officials, said he did not change the contract to cave to protesters, and insisted it is easier to detain people arrested for crimes than to worry about holding a separate space for civil immigration detainees. ICE typically pays county governments more than $100 per day, per detainee.

“Wherever the next stop they have with ICE, I wish them better, whatever it may be,” Cureton said.

Patrick Julney, 37, who came to the United States from Haiti as a young child in 1988, has said he was transferred from Bergen County to Louisiana after publicly alleging abuses in the New Jersey facility. ICE says he is a priority for deportation because he served prison time for 2010 convictions for drug possession for first-degree robbery with force against a minor. Julney in an interview admitted the drug charge but disputes the robbery conviction. ICE has detained him since 2019.

Julney said he doesn’t speak Creole and wants to build a new life in the United States, learning to drive a forklift and lining up a construction job if he is released. One of his uncles recently visited Haiti and was kidnapped twice, and is still missing, his lawyer said.

“I’m a changed person,” Julney said in a phone interview from detention in Louisiana, insisting he does not pose a threat to public safety, as ICE claims. “They say that I’m threat to the community, but the same community they’re saying I’m a threat to is the same community that’s writing letters, begging for my freedom, begging for my life to be spared.”

A day after ICE left Bergen County last month — taking 15 detainees along with them — the mood was grim among advocates who turned out to protest outside the jail in the cold rain.

They held banners saying “No transfers” and “Stop Detention Centers.” They banged a drum and played recordings of immigrants desperate to get home to their families. Some cursed ICE, but there was nobody to listen, just jersey barriers, tall metal fencing and “no trespassing” signs.

“We want them to know we’re not going to stand for this,” said Julney’s partner, Laura, 37, referring to the transfers. “It’s not just about Patrick. It’s about everybody.”

Republicans and proponents of immigration enforcement say the Biden administration is wrong to limit enforcement, and have been asking federal judges to order immigration officials to fully enforce the law.

Don Rosenberg, president of the Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, whose son was killed in 2010 by an unlicensed driver from Honduras who came to the United States illegally and then obtained a work permit, said that anyone in the United States without papers should be detained and deported.

ICE records show that 23.6 percent of migrant families and 18.3 percent of adults taken into custody last fiscal year have either absconded or failed to comply with the terms of their release.

“Anybody that’s here illegally, with maybe some minor exceptions, should be deported,” Rosenberg said. “If you intend to deport someone and you don’t detain them, you’ll never find them. They’re going to disappear.”