As a presidential candidate in 2020, Joe Biden pledged to end for-profit immigration detention, saying: “No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence.”
The opportunity for action came early in the Democratic president’s term, in May 2021, when a group of senior immigration officials launched an internal review of detention centers to decide which should be scaled back, reformed or closed.
The review, which has not been previously reported, followed years of complaints from government watchdogs, detainees and advocates about poor medical care and sanitation, a lack of access to lawyers, sexual assault and detainee deaths.
Months later, the group shared findings with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, highlighting around two dozen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and recommending some be closed, according to five current and former officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal government deliberations.
Reuters could not confirm which centers were recommended to be shut down.
But, as illegal crossings reached record highs at the U.S.-Mexico border – putting pressure on Biden officials to keep detention space available – they only announced the closure of one facility in March 2022.
The stalled reform coincided with a boom in private prison revenues from ICE contracts during the Biden administration and an increase in the percentage of detainees being held in private facilities, according to an analysis of ICE data by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shared exclusively with Reuters.
Some officials argue private facilities can be better than local jails that contract with ICE. Companies say they provide crucial flexibility and adhere to ICE standards.
As Biden gears up to seek re-election in 2024 – and a possible rematch against his Republican predecessor Donald Trump – immigration remains a political flashpoint. Advocates and some Democrats have criticized Biden for not going far enough to reverse hardline Trump policies and adopting some restrictive measures. At the same time, Republicans have lambasted Biden as too lenient.
While the review sought to close or reform troubled centers, the White House and Mayorkas wanted to preserve detention beds and were concerned with backlash in counties that benefited economically from the detention centers, three of the officials said.
The Biden administration shuttered or reduced use of some of the most criticized lockups, but it seemed like “the barest minimum” compared to what was initially envisioned by the group that conducted the review, one of the officials said.