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The Trump administration has led an effort to arrest more people living in the U.S. illegally. So now they need somewhere to put them. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the agency known as ICE, has called for five new detention centers. The jails would be built and operated by private prison corporations. NPR's John Burnett reports that an industry that had fallen out of favor with the Obama administration is seeing a comeback.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Joe Corley Detention Facility is a sprawling complex surrounded by shiny concertina wire located in Conroe, Texas, about an hour north of Houston. It's owned by GEO Group, the nation's largest private prison company. ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service pay GEO $32 million a year to house, feed and provide medical care for a thousand detainees. Between 2013 and 2014, one of the ICE detainees was Douglas Menjivar.
DOUGLAS MENJIVAR: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: He's a 42-year-old Salvadoran who entered the country illegally and is charged with violating a prior deportation. He's out now, fighting to get legal status in immigration court. Menjivar has become a bitter critic of immigrant detention centers, which are supposed to be holding facilities for civil matters, not prisons for meeting out punishment.
MENJIVAR: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "But what they're building is another prison," he says, of a second GEO jail that's under construction in Conroe. "For me, it's a bad idea. They're psychologically mistreating immigrants." Menjivar says he was raped by gang members in his cell and when he reported it to the medical staff, they mocked him. ICE found the rape allegation to be unsubstantiated. His lawyer has now filed a federal civil rights complaint. The Salvadoran also says he was forced to work for a dollar a day.
MENJIVAR: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "They make you work in the kitchen preparing food," he says, "cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the corridors. If you refuse, they only give you a little bit of food. They mistreat you more."
MENJIVAR: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: The forced labor allegations are part of two class action lawsuits in federal court. GEO strongly refutes these claims and plans to fight them. In an emailed statement, the company says detainee labor is voluntary and immigrant workers are paid a dollar a day because that's the rate set by ICE. GEO also says it provides safe and humane environments and that all of its facilities comply with national detention standards. But these are just the latest grievances against the business of immigrant incarceration. Human rights groups have compiled reports of medical neglect and deaths in custody. They claim corporations skimp on detainee care in order to maximize profits.
KEVIN LANDY: I don't get the impression that the Trump administration has any interest in implementing new detention reforms. If anything, it looks like they may be eliminating some safeguards.
BURNETT: That's Kevin Landy. He was in charge of trying to reform federal oversight of immigrant jails during the Obama administration. He also advocated for raising the pay rate of a dollar a day, which was set in 1974. But now ICE is shutting down what was Landy's office and moving the functions elsewhere in the agencies. Carl Takei is senior staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project.
CARL TAKEI: It is incredibly scary to contemplate the notion that ICE would be removing even the dysfunctional oversight that currently exists.
BURNETT: At the same time, immigration authorities want to increase detention space. In its latest budget request, ICE has asked for more than 51,000 detainee beds, a 25 percent increase over the last year. Immigrant advocates wish the agency would use more alternatives to detention such as electronic ankle monitors. ICE, however, believes lockups are the surest way to get detainees to show up in immigration court. So ICE is turning once again to the private prison industry.
LAUREN-BROOKE EISEN: I think what's driving this is the administration wants to make a point that they're serious about immigration enforcement.
BURNETT: Lauren-Brooke Eisen is at the New York University School of Law, and she's author of a new book, "Inside Private Prisons."
EISEN: They're going to put their money where their mouths are, and I think they're going to invest in more immigrant detention centers.
BURNETT: This is an about face from the Obama administration, which took the extraordinary step of phasing out contracts with private prisons that house immigrants convicted of crimes committed in the U.S. The Justice Department found these prisons fall short on safety and security and are no cheaper than those run by the federal government. Since Trump took office, the Bureau of Prisons has restored those contracts, and ICE is proposing five new private detention centers in Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul, Salt Lake City and South Texas. Philip Miller is in charge of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations.
PHILIP MILLER: It's good business sense to have bed capacity in close proximity to where our operations are.
BURNETT: Traditionally, ICE has put jails in border states, close to where most people were caught. But immigration agents under Trump have been much more aggressive in the interior. The changing arrest pattern is good news for private prison companies. In a third-quarter earnings call last month, a GEO executive indicated that the government's need for additional detention space should benefit company revenues. John Burnett, NPR News, Conroe, Texas.
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