Exclusive: Biden officials kept immigration jails despite internal cost concerns

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Sept 27 (Reuters) – Biden administration officials last year recommended closing or downsizing nine immigration detention centers because of high costs and staffing shortages, a move that could have saved $235 million, a draft U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo reviewed by Reuters shows. But ICE ultimately only ended contracts with two of the detention centers flagged in the memo.

Six of the nine detention centers identified in the August 2022 memo were operated by private companies. Among the for-profit detention centers was the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, where a government watchdog earlier had called for the relocation of all detainees due to “critical staffing shortages that have led to safety risks and unsanitary living conditions.”

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A finalized version of the memo dated Sept. 1, 2022, and reviewed by Reuters, omitted the recommendation to close Torrance. The finalized memo was shared with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ office, one current and one former U.S. official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the internal process.

U.S. President Joe Biden promised during the 2020 campaign to reform immigration detention and cut out for-profit companies. But with record numbers of migrants attempting to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022, some officials argued Torrance – about an hour southeast of Albuquerque – was needed due to its proximity to the border, the current and former officials said.

The failed Biden administration detention reform effort shows the challenges Biden will face to deliver on his earlier campaign promises as he seeks another term in 2024.

“There’s always perpetual fear about losing beds, that we’ll look bad and get jammed,” the current U.S. official told Reuters.

Following a Reuters request for comment, an ICE official said Torrance was a key detention center and that ICE keeps the population lower than capacity to avoid overburdening the staff.

ICE did not comment on the authenticity of the documents reviewed by Reuters or the decision-making process.

“The agency continuously reviews and enhances civil detention operations to ensure non-citizens are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled,” ICE spokesperson Jenny Burke said.

Razor wire fencing encloses the entrance of the Torrance County Detention Facility, where migrants are housed, in Estancia, New Mexico, U.S., September 21, 2023. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm Acquire Licensing Rights

The draft memo stated that CoreCivic, the company that operates Torrance, could not maintain staffing and that the daily cost to house a detainee was more than double the average.

Brian Todd, a CoreCivic spokesperson, called allegations against Torrance “false and misleading” and said the facility provides “a safe, humane and appropriate environment” for detainees.

ICE ended contracts with two little-used facilities named in both memos: the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania and Yuba County Jail in California. Both were run by the counties.

At Berks, which held families until 2021, each detainee cost about $1,200 per day, according to the draft memo, far beyond the $142 average in fiscal year 2022. At Yuba, the daily cost per detainee was $8,000, the memo said.

On Tuesday night, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico said it filed a wrongful death lawsuit in state court on behalf of the estate of Kesley Vial, a 23-year-old Brazilian man who hanged himself in Torrance on Aug. 17, 2022.

The lawsuit cites ICE contracting reports that said Torrance staffing shortages impacted safety, security and care. The suit cites government watchdog inspections that also found the facility failed to meet minimum medical staffing levels.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” said Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico.

EXORBITANT COSTS

The August 2022 draft ICE memo called for renegotiating contracts at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California and the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, two for-profit detention centers where ICE paid outsize sums to house a handful of detainees.

At the time, court orders intended to halt the spread of COVID-19 kept ICE from sending more detainees to both facilities, but ICE continued to pay for a minimum of nearly 1,500 beds at Adelanto and 500 at Farmville.

Each detainee cost about $2,000 per day at Adelanto, operated by the private prison company GEO Group, according to the memo. At Farmville, run by another private firm, Immigration Centers of America (ICA), it was $8,000 a day.

ICE reduced the minimum beds it paid for at Adelanto, according to ICE data posted in May 2023, but Farmville’s minimum remains unchanged.

An ICE official said Adelanto is “a very well-run facility” that could be useful in the future although the court order continues to block new detainees from entering.

A separate U.S. official said Farmville is needed because of limited East Coast detention space. The facility held 70 people as of this week, ICE data shows.

GEO Group spokesperson Christopher Ferreira said the company could not comment on memos it had not reviewed but touted Adelanto as “a modern, state-of-the art facility built to suit ICE’s needs.”

ICA did not respond to requests for comment.

The Biden administration has held more migrants in ICE detention in recent months following the mid-May implementation of stricter asylum rules.

Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York City; Editing by Suzanne Goldenberg

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Ted Hesson is an immigration reporter for Reuters, based in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the policy and politics of immigration, asylum and border security. Prior to joining Reuters in 2019, Ted worked for the news outlet POLITICO, where he also covered immigration. His articles have appeared in POLITICO Magazine, The Atlantic and VICE News, among other publications. Ted holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and bachelor’s degree from Boston College.

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