RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's been a lot of focus on the southwest border where temporary holding facilities are overflowing with unauthorized migrants and children. In the interior of the country, though, it's a totally different situation. Detention facilities have largely emptied out, but the federal government is still paying for them. The Trump administration locked up a record number of undocumented immigrants, more than 55,000 at one point. Then the pandemic hit and then President Biden came into office and the number of immigrants being detained plunged. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, is still paying tens of millions of dollars a month on empty detention beds. I talked with NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration, and asked him to explain why.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, to understand this, it helps to start with how ICE detention works. ICE doesn't actually own or operate most of these facilities. Instead, it contracts with private detention companies and county jails. And those contracts very often include what are called guaranteed minimums, which means essentially that ICE pays for a certain number of beds, whether they are occupied or not. And right now, a huge number are not.
MARTIN: How many empty beds are we talking about? And what's the price tag of that?
ROSE: Well, ICE guarantees it will pay for about 29,000 beds no matter what. But right now, there are only about 14,000 immigrants in ICE detention. Now, here comes the math. We know the agency pays on average $75 per detainee per day. So that works out to more than a million dollars a day that ICE is spending on empty beds. And, of course, taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill.
MARTIN: I mean, it seems wasteful, right? Are these deals controversial?
ROSE: Well, the detention companies say they need this guaranteed revenue stream in order to keep their operations going. But these deals have been controversial for years, and now ICE is paying for more unused space than ever before. Meanwhile, a larger debate has been heating up about whether the government should be locking up so many immigrants in the first place. I have been digging into how we got here, starting at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Wash.
ALISON HOLLINZ: It used to be really, really bustling because if you went in during...
ROSE: This is Alison Hollinz. She's a lawyer with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who spent a lot of time at this detention center waiting to meet with clients.
HOLLINZ: When I came in today at 12 o'clock, there was only one other attorney who had been in all day today. So there were a total of two attorney visits today.
ROSE: The detained population is way down, partly because ICE released hundreds of people to lower the risk of COVID and partly because under orders from President Biden, the agency is arresting and detaining fewer unauthorized immigrants. So now Hollinz gets a front-row parking spot and walks right into an empty visiting room.
HOLLINZ: Which is very, very different from how it used to be.
ROSE: The Tacoma facility used to hold almost 1,600 immigrants, but now the average daily population there is less than 350. That means ICE is paying for hundreds of beds that are empty. It's the same story nationwide. Silky Shah is with the nonprofit Detention Watch Network.
SILKY SHAH: The numbers that we have right now on detention are the lowest they've been in 20 years. But we have the capacity for a lot more. And a lot of those beds continue to get paid for.
ROSE: For Shah, this isn't just about money. It's also about the morality of putting immigrants behind bars for civil violations. Many ICE detainees have not been convicted of any crimes. Shah wants to see the detention system dismantled. And she says having so many guaranteed beds makes that harder. And it's not just progressive activists who are concerned. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office also weighed in earlier this year. The GAO documented how the Trump administration oversaw a big jump in the number of guaranteed minimums in detention contracts.
REBECCA GAMBLER: This has resulted in ICE spending millions of dollars a month on unused detention beds.
ROSE: Rebecca Gambler helped write that GAO report. She says the GAO interviewed ICE's own staff in a number of field offices around the country, and even they raised red flags about deals that locked in more guaranteed payments.
GAMBLER: We heard concerns from field office officials about ICE's approach to using guaranteed minimums as not always being in the best interest of the government.
ROSE: But ICE's leadership in Washington is pushing back. ICE says, predicting how many immigrants will be detained as a complex challenge and that the pandemic threw a wrench into that. And by guaranteeing minimum payments, ICE says the agency is able to negotiate a lower rate per detainee. The private companies that operate these detention facilities, they like guaranteed minimums, too.
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GEORGE ZOLEY: You can't just scale up and scale down very quickly in any of our federal facilities.
ROSE: George Zoley is the founder and CEO of the GEO Group, one of the big private detention companies that together account for 80% of ICE's detention beds. On an earnings call with investors in February, Zoley explained that these operators are required by ICE to have a certain number of people on staff and that staffing up can't be done quickly.
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ZOLEY: That's because it takes so long through the clearance process to bring any new employee on board. It's a matter of several weeks, if not months.
ROSE: Zoley also said that while the pandemic clobbered the nation's economy, these minimum payments helped cushion the blow for the GEO Group.
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ZOLEY: It could have been much worse if it weren't for some of these guarantees.
ROSE: Immigrant advocates have long argued that these deals are good for the private detention industry but bad for immigrant communities and taxpayers. In 2017, Congress agreed to drop a requirement that ICE maintain a minimum number of detention beds. Then President Trump ramped up his immigration crackdown and ICE continued to write guaranteed minimums into its contracts anyway. Now activists like Silky Shah see a new opportunity with President Biden in the White House.
SHAH: I think that's a real question for the administration. Do they want to continue to detain people because of what the Trump administration put in place? Or do they want to actually move towards the more morally appropriate position of actually not detaining tons of people?
MARTIN: So that's the dilemma, at least from the activists' point of view. Joel Rose is still here with us. What is the Biden administration saying, Joel?
ROSE: Well, during the campaign, Biden said the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants. And when he got into office, Biden moved to phase out privately run federal prisons. But so far, he has not addressed immigration detention. And this is not lost on progressive advocates who say the time to act, the time to scale back the ICE detention system once and for all, is now while these beds are empty and ICE is arresting fewer immigrants, so it's not likely to fill them anytime soon. That said, the Trump administration locked in a number of long-term contracts with detention facilities that could make it harder for Biden to simply close them down.
MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you for this reporting. We appreciate it.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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