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Biden Wants To End For-Profit Immigrant Detention. His Administration Isn't So Sure

President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic National Committee's "Back on Track" drive-in car rally in Duluth, Georgia, to celebrate his 100th day in office. Immigrant advocates were there to protest.
President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic National Committee's "Back on Track" drive-in car rally in Duluth, Georgia, to celebrate his 100th day in office. Immigrant advocates were there to protest.

When President Biden visited the battleground state of Georgia for a rally to celebrate his 100th day in office, immigrant advocates were there to protest, chanting, "End detention now!" as he stepped to the microphone.

Normally the president would just ignore the hecklers until security could escort them out. Instead, Biden engaged with the protesters.

"I agree with you. I'm working on it, man!" Biden said. "There should be no private prisons, period, none, period. That's what they're talking about — private detention centers. They should not exist. And we are working to close all of them."

Biden has doubled down on his campaign promise to end privately-run detention centers, including those that detain immigrants, but immigrant rights advocates are getting impatient. They say that Biden's administration frequently appears to be at odds with the president's own position on detaining immigrants for profit.

"President Biden made some strong promises about reforming detention that we applauded, and we would like to see him carry them out," said Grace Meng, a lawyer with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

The Department of Homeland Security, however, shows no sign of dismantling its detention network that relies heavily on private contractors — and recently submitted a budget request to maintain funding for tens of thousands of beds in privately run facilities.

Immigration officials warn they may need that detention space, especially with the ongoing influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 180,000 migrants were apprehended after crossing the border in May, the highest monthly total in 20 years.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice was in court last week to argue against a California law that bans privately-run prisons and immigrant detention centers in the state.

A 'kick in the teeth'

Protesters were in California, too, chanting and holding signs outside the federal appeals court in Pasadena.

"It just seems like another kick in the teeth to say that you're going to defend a position that the Trump administration took to help private prison companies continue to keep contracts," said Meng, who was among the protesters.

The Justice Department says the California law, known as AB 32, should be struck down, arguing that the state can't tell the federal government who it can contract with.

"The question is whether the federal government gets to make the policy choices for the federal government," said Justice Department attorney Mark Stern, arguing alongside an attorney for The GEO Group, a major private detention company that is suing to block the California law.

No place for migrants to go

Meanwhile, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says he's concerned about what will happen when the U.S.-Mexico border reopens.

Since the pandemic began, immigration authorities have been able to quickly expel thousands of migrants under an emergency public health order. And ICE released many immigrants from detention to stop the spread of the coronavirus, leaving thousands of empty beds in ICE detention facilities.

But acting ICE director Tae Johnson told Congress last month that could change quickly — if the Biden administration lifts the public health order at the border and more migrants crossing illegally would need to be detained.

"Just overnight, we could start seeing 3,000 and 5,000 people a day again," Johnson testified.

He warned that could lead to another situation like the spring of 2019, when tens of thousands of migrants were apprehended after crossing the border. "Border Patrol had 15,000 people in custody, and no place for them to go," Johnson said.

Billions of dollars needed to fund private detention

ICE depends heavily on private contractors, with roughly 80% of the detention beds in its detention network operated by for-profit companies.

Watchdog agencies and human rights groups say the private detention industry has a long track record of detainee abuses and inadequate medical care.

DHS has announced plans to shutter two ICE detention centers — including a privately-operated facility in Irwin County, Georgia where a doctor allegedly performed unwanted gynecological procedures on detainees.

Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says he's reviewing concerns about ICE detention centers, and he was asked at a Congressional hearing last month if he expects to close any more of them.

"We are studying the issue very carefully," Mayorkas said. "My direction could not have been clearer, which is that we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in detention or substandard conditions."

A few days after Mayorkas testified, DHS submitted its budget request, asking Congress for $1.8 billion to fund 32,500 detention beds — the vast majority of them in privately operated detention centers.

That's down slightly from the 34,000 detention beds that Congress funded last year, and far below the 60,000 beds the Trump administration asked for in its final budget request.

But advocates say it's a long way from what Biden promised.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.