Over 100 House Democrats Tell Biden to Halt Immigration Detention Expansion

More than 100 House Democrats sent a letter to the Biden administration on Thursday calling on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to suspend detention expansion, phase out private for-profit facilities, and conduct a review of all ICE detention facilities.

The letter, which is led by Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Raul Grijalva and Jason Crow, states that after the White House Executive Order ending privately operated prisons, members of Congress called for President Joe Biden to expand the order to include ICE detention, but "it appears that ICE is moving in the opposite direction."

It cites a September 29 ICE contract to detain up to 1,875 immigrants at the GEO Group-operated Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania and expansion of the Pennsylvania Berks County ICE detention center for use as an adult facility for women.

The Democrats also said they are concerned that the private prison company CoreCivic may be looking to ICE to take over an expiring U.S. Marshals Services contract with the West Tennessee Detention Facility.

"These facilities all have a long-documented history of substandard conditions and abuse," the lawmakers wrote. "These actions are being taken, at taxpayer expense, without justification for the resulting increase."

In statements and interviews with Newsweek, Democrats argued that the for-profit nature of the immigration detention system is dangerous and a reason the system is described by both parties as broken.

"It's clear that for-profit detention centers are a breeding ground for rampant and unchecked mistreatment," Jayapal said. "They are inherently motivated to cut corners and treat people poorly in the name of increasing profits."

"The system is broken," she added. "Immigrants deserve compassion and their basic human rights and dignity protected."

While Jayapal said the for-profit detention system must be eliminated, Grijalva tied it to the lack of success administrations have had on passing long-proposed comprehensive immigration reform solutions.

"The correlation is there," Grijalva said. "It signifies the most intense lobbying against immigration reform. It's in their best interest; a high bed count is in their best interest."

He was referring to a detention bed mandate requiring ICE to maintain approximately 34,000 beds daily. Legislators, not law enforcement, decide the number of beds.

The letter from lawmakers states that a January 2021 Government Accountability Office report documented wasteful spending resulting from the significant jump in the number of beds ICE agreed to in detention contracts signed during the Trump administration.

It also said the DHS Office of the Inspector General released a report in September 2021 on violations of ICE detention standards in the Otay Mesa facility, recommending that ICE review its contracting options to better identify housing requirements and determine if guaranteed minimums were necessary.

ICE, the letter states, refused to concur with that recommendation.

The White House referred Newsweek to DHS, which did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates for immigration reform through bipartisan outreach, said the letter from Democrats did not come as a surprise in light of early and surprising decisions made by the White House.

"During the course of the first couple months of the administration, it was pretty glaring that the president said he was going to get private prisons out of the federal jail system but not out of immigration detention," he told Newsweek.

"The administration has to explain why they decided to keep working with private prison companies or make that change," Noorani said.

The lawmakers concluded their letter by asking for further information on pending detention contracts and an update on the already announced DHS detention review process by April 10.

Representative Grijalva, the longtime progressive Arizona lawmaker, said the Biden administration has made other errors in immigration policy, like maintaining the use of Title 42, which allows immigrants to be expelled at the border using public health reasoning related to the pandemic.

"It's a relic of a past administration," Grijalva said, "I don't know why it's still there."

He said the response to immigration reform by the administration, which proposed a legislative package that stalled in Congress, "has essentially been unfocused" and could be damaging to Biden in the November midterm elections.

"That's what I mean by 'unfocused,'" he said. "They're going to hurt."

"The issue is how do you respond to it rationally and with a comprehensive approach on the border and security," he added, "when the majority of the American people are looking for a solution."

immigration detention border patrol
An immigrant family from Brazil arrives to a U.S. Border Patrol detention facility after walking from the U.S.-Mexico border on December 08, 2021 through the city of Yuma, Arizona. U.S. Border Patrol agents had earlier said that the facility was full, and had then stopped transporting migrants from the border to the center. So some migrants walked the seven miles there on their own and were then taken into custody to apply for asylum. John Moore/Getty Images