The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s pledge to close private migrant prisons remains unfulfilled

President Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden vowed in his 2020 campaign to shutter for-profit migrant detention facilities; he repeated the promise after taking office. It hasn’t happened. To the contrary: The administration, overwhelmed by the surge in unauthorized border crossings, now holds roughly 30,000 migrants in detention, about double the count it inherited from the Trump administration. Roughly 4 in 5 detainees are in private facilities overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That’s a troubling development given ongoing reports of poor conditions and health care for migrant detainees, and evidence that the government has been less than aggressive in seeking remedies in the past. Officials say they are tightening oversight, yet problems persist. Even though the government has stopped housing migrants in some prisons with poor records, more needs to happen. And Mr. Biden’s original promise to close down for-profit migrant detention should still be the goal.

In fact, the president issued an executive order soon after entering office to close down private prisons used to house other federal inmates — who are by and large U.S. citizens. The rationale for closing them was the same as that for shifting away from private migrant prisons: the principle that incarcerating offenders is properly a government obligation, not an opportunity for profit.

If anything, the logic for ending private prisons for migrants is more compelling. Roughly 70 percent of migrant detainees have no criminal record; they face civil immigration proceedings, awaiting adjudication of their asylum and deportation cases. Many of the rest have been charged with relatively minor offenses, including traffic violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which gathers immigration enforcement data. Only a modest number have committed serious crimes. In other words, few migrant detainees are dangerous.

Meanwhile, ICE supervises some 330,000 non-detained migrants using technological surveillance, more than twice the number in such programs two years ago. Most migrants not held in detention facilities — often undocumented families and minors — show up for their immigration court hearings when summoned.

Those who are imprisoned in ICE facilities, including for-profit ones, are typically single adults. There can be no justification for subjecting them to the substandard conditions and abuse that have been reported at some facilities. Just this month, a Senate committee issued an in-depth report concluding that dozens of women held at a for-profit immigration jail in rural Georgia were likely subjected to unwarranted gynecological procedures, including surgeries, by a non-board-certified physician who had previous legal issues. The problems at the Irwin County Detention Center involved what medical experts told the Senate panel was “aggressive and unethical” treatment. Shockingly, they lasted for three years during the Trump administration, until 2020. And despite complaints from a whistleblower and immigrant advocates, the situation went unaddressed.

The government has stopped using the Irwin County facility to house migrants. Yet the Senate report is a reminder of a pattern of problems at migrant detention centers, and of the president’s failure to live up to his campaign promise.

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