For-Profit ICE Detention Faces Resistance After Big Expansion Under Trump A grassroots movement opposing privately run immigrant jails, which grew under former President Donald Trump, has continued and found a more receptive audience under President Biden.

Immigrant Detention For Profit Faces Resistance After Big Expansion Under Trump

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There is, in this country, a big network of for-profit jails that hold undocumented immigrants. The Trump administration greatly expanded that detention network, sometimes over local objections, and prison companies did quite well. But these days, privately run immigrant jails face growing public opposition, and they've fallen out of favor with the Biden administration. Here's NPR's John Burnett.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A protest is ready to commence outside of a privately run immigrant jail in the town of Taylor, just north of Austin. A group of women are wearing T-shirts that read, mujeres luchadoras - fighting women. They're former detainees of the fenced edifice that looms in the background. It's the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, named after the founder of the private prison company that holds the contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

SULMA FRANCO: (Through interpreter) And there's corporations that are profiting off of our suffering. We want all cages to be shut down right now.

BURNETT: The Spanish-speaker translated here is Sulma Franco, a Guatemalan who was detained there for five months. She and others believe that migrants who've committed no crime, who came here seeking asylum, should not be locked up while their cases are pending.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting in Spanish).


BURNETT: Grassroots resistance to private prisons, like last month's protest in Taylor, is surging across the country. Critics say operators prioritize profits over the well-being of detainees and Trump's separation of families, where the parents were locked up, further inflamed opponents. Mark Fleming is with the National Immigrant Justice Center.

MARK FLEMING: The private prison companies are certainly facing some headwinds here. They are definitely increasingly unpopular in the public sphere.

BURNETT: Hutto was troubled from the beginning. There was a successful ACLU lawsuit over substandard living conditions and, later, allegations of sexual assaults.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At a federal immigration facility in Taylor, at least three women have reported guards sexually assaulted them at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.

BURNETT: Then cities and counties began to turn against these facilities. Localities often act as middlemen between ICE and the private prison companies. In Williamson County, where Taylor is located, immigrant advocates asked the commissioners to sever the contract with Hutto, and in 2018, they got their way.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All those in favor - four for and one against. Thank you very much. So the motion carries for that.


BURNETT: The celebration, though, was temporary. Last year, ICE and CoreCivic, the company that runs Hutto, signed a 10-year contract that bypasses Williamson County and public opposition altogether. Hutto stays open. Again, Mark Fleming on the prison companies.

FLEMING: I think what they've proven over the years is that they are resourceful and resilient. They have found ways to keep doing business.

BURNETT: As elected bodies in prison towns are becoming more responsive to angry citizens, ICE has increasingly relied on this workaround. The agency contracts directly with the prison operator and avoids messy public meetings. The same thing happened on an even larger scale in California. Two weeks before a sweeping state law went into effect last year that would have phased out for-profit detention, ICE quietly signed long-term contracts with three companies to keep their facilities open. ICE says it has to have a place to put criminal immigrants.

Protesters, like these musicians outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, are still agitating to shut them down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Singing in Spanish).

BURNETT: ICE also tried this tactic in Ionia, Mich. In 2019, the agency announced its intention to open a 600-bed detention facility in that town, between Grand Rapids and Lansing. But local opposition quickly formed, the governor came out against it, and even the all-Republican Ionia County Board of Commissioners gave it a thumbs-down.

J R MARTIN: We took that as really good news that the proposal was shut down so quickly.

BURNETT: J.R. Martin is with the group No Detention Centers in Michigan. He says ICE sidestepped local naysayers and put out a contract for a new facility.

MARTIN: We learned that pretty much as soon as that decision had been made, ICE was working on whatever they could do to go around it and to find some other way of establishing a new facility in that area.

BURNETT: But since then, a lot has changed. ICE has released tens of thousands of detainees because of worries over COVID contagion, and the contract in Ionia has apparently gone cold. A spokesman for Immigration Centers of America, the company that was interested in building in Ionia, told NPR that ICE has stopped moving forward with all three detention contracts the company was pursuing in Michigan, Illinois and Maryland. This is happening at a time when hostility to for-profit immigrant jails is swelling. California, Illinois and Nevada have all taken steps to restrict the business of privately operated jails. Now New Jersey, New Mexico, Washington state and Maryland are considering doing the same thing.

Here's testimony from immigrant advocate Nick Katz on Maryland's bill, which passed its General Assembly last week. The governor says he'll veto it.


NICK KATZ: Not only should we end immigration detention in Maryland, we should demand that ICE release those who are detained here and across the country.

BURNETT: I asked ICE about growing public and political opposition to its detention network. A spokesman replied that, quote, "Cooperation by local officials in the community at large is an indispensable component of promoting public safety." He also said ICE is continually reviewing its detention requirements for operational flexibility. The industry responds to the souring public mood this way.

ALEXANDRA WILKES: There's been a multitude of misinformation out there. So I really wouldn't look to public sentiment for that because there are so many mistruths out there about the industry.

BURNETT: Alexandra Wilkes is a spokesperson for Day 1 Alliance, a private detention industry trade group. She says conditions inside contracted lockups are not as terrible as detainees say, and the facilities are cheaper than government-run detention.

WILKES: I would also challenge activists to come up with a solution other than contractor-operated facilities.

BURNETT: Meanwhile, major banks have stopped lending to the two publicly traded prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, and last month, Wall Street lowered their bond ratings, citing large debt repayments and hostile operating conditions under the new Biden administration. Private prisons are decidedly out of favor in Washington these days. President Biden has instructed the Justice Department to phase them out, ordered ICE to arrest fewer immigrants and signaled an interest in alternatives to detention.

John Burnett, NPR News, Taylor Texas.


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