When President Biden announced in late January he would be phasing out federal contracts for private prisons, immigration advocates couldn’t help but notice the action didn’t include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers.
The executive orders Biden laid out Jan. 26, which were designed to tackle racial disparities, end the Justice Department’s use of private prisons but neglect to include the Department of Homeland Security.
Dee Sull, a local immigration attorney who has numerous clients held within ICE facilities, calls the omission a “grave oversight.”
“You can’t have equality and justice if you’re going to ignore ICE detainees who are predominantly brown and Black people,” Sull said. “Do I represent other clients who are white? Yes. But more than likely we know statistically they go after individuals who are brown and Black.”
Leo Murrieta, the director for the immigrant and workers’ rights organization Make the Road Nevada, said the immigrant detention system is inhumane, adding the Biden Administration needs to work aggressively to fix it.
“This is a really big black eye on our nation,” he said. “We can’t in one breath say our criminal justice system needs to be reformed and we need to defend the rights of people by eliminating private prison, while also saying it’s 100 percent OK to deny those basic rights and basic principles to immigrants. It’s not OK and not what we should be doing in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration.”
Erika Castro, an immigration organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, was also surprised to see contracts being looked at for one department but not another.
“The fact they are doing it with other jails and prisons shows we can do it for detention centers as well, it’s really the will,” she said. “It is something we will continue to push for because when you are prospering off the incarceration of our communities that leads to the worst treatment of our communities in detention.”
Criticism about private prisons running ICE detention centers isn’t new. Castro said a 2016 report from the Department of Justice found more instances of abuse in private prisons.
According to an overview from the left-leaning group Center for American Progress, “The report found that for-profit prisons in the United States were more likely to endanger inmates’ security and rights. These problems were so significant that in August 2016, the Obama administration announced that it would begin to phase out private prisons”
The election of Trump, whose administration targeted immigrant communities through policy changes to the public charge rule, legal challenges to temporary protected status recipients, attempts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival and numerous other policies, often accompanied with aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric, also led to an increase in contracts with private prisons.
“We know the Trump Administration used detention centers to scare communities,” Castro said. “We want to make sure this administration doesn’t forget about all the inhumane treatments that the Trump Administration did when it came to detaining undocumented immigrants and the use of private prisons.”
Local groups have also criticized the Nevada Southern Detention Center — the Pahrump facility run by the private prison firm CoreCivic — for its treatment of detainees and lack of transparency.
“So many Southern Nevada immigrant families have had to bear witness to treatment such as not being able to speak with their family members,” Murrieta said. “Detainees not being offered the right to counsel. Detainees not being allowed to make phone calls. In our state prisons we’ve seen vile neglect and oversight. The unfortunate thing is that level of inhumanity feels like the floor for immigrant detention. We agree as a society when we see the injustices and atrocities in our jails that disregard human life, we protest and cry out. When it’s done to immigrants, we stay silent.”
The spread of Covid-19 at the Pahrump detention center led to Sull suing the detention facility because of its living conditions and inadequate care.
Litigation, Sull said, is ongoing.
In the coming days the Biden administration is expected to announce further actions addressing immigration policy. There is no indication those actions will include an expanded order to curb private contracts used by ICE.
“I’m hopeful that removing private prisons from detention centers is also included in that,” Castro said. “Our senator (Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto) is vocal about that and we’re going to continue to be vocal about it and push the administration.”
Following last week’s announcement, Cortez Masto tweeted out her support for phasing out contracts but also added that “it’s important that we do the same for private immigrant detention facilities that are profiting off of incarceration too.”
Murrieta said during the Obama-Biden administration there was “an all out assault on immigrant communities and immigrant families” that led to high numbers of deportations.
“In order to counteract that legacy and create his own legacy, President Biden needs to work really aggressively to bring into the light the millions of undocumented people currently living in the shadows,” Murrieta added.
Biden recently announced a moratorium on deportations for 100 days, which is currently being blocked by a Texas judge. Murrieta called Biden’s moratorium a good move, but also a small one given the scope of action needed.
“We need to enact legislation, and we need to move now to create a pathway to citizenship to the 11-plus-million undocumented citizens who have been keeping our country running,” he added. “Executive orders can be overturned by the next president and we can’t live four years at a time as an immigrant community. We need solid, long term fixes and solutions that are centered in justice.”