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Building More Prisons Won't Solve Our Immigration Detention Crisis

ICE claims that these new facilities will replace existing beds in problematic facilities, yet no commitment has been made to close a single bed in any location.

Sixty miles southeast of San Antonio, plans are underway for the construction of a new 600-bed, $32 million immigration detention center in Karnes County, Texas, in partnership with The GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit prison corporations in the country. This facility, the first in a series of so-called “civil” detention facilities slated for development across the country, will be used to detain asylum seekers and immigrants without criminal convictions.

While touted as a major step toward reform, the federal government's prioritization of building new detention beds, its focus on imprisoning people who pose no threat to public safety, and its continuing partnership with The GEO Group, which has a notorious track record of civil and human rights violations, raise serious doubts about the Obama administration's commitment to overhauling a decidedly broken immigration detention system.

Although improving conditions is certainly desirable, addressing the crisis in our detention system will require more than sprucing up detention centers. It is time for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the division of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for running the detention system, to stop partnering with entities that put profits before safety and meaningfully engage community stakeholders to fundamentally restructure the system. It is time to look beyond detention to more just and cost-effective alternatives to reduce the human and financial cost of a system built on prisons, jails and other punitive facilities.

Since 2003, over 2 million people have passed through a loose network of detention facilities comprised of more than 270 federal, private, state prisons and county jails, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion to taxpayers. The rapid growth of the detention system in recent years has been accompanied by increasing levels of abuse, ranging from substandard living conditions to over 100 immigrant deaths.

Feeding the growing number of detention beds is an increasingly aggressive set of enforcement programs such as Secure Communities, 287(g), and the Criminal Alien Program. These programs have garnered significant criticism in recent years because they encourage racial profiling, siphon off resources from local police departments to enforce federal immigration law, break down trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, and result in the detention of individuals whom ICE itself acknowledged should not be an enforcement priority.

Last year, ICE acknowledged the failings in the system and announced sweeping reforms, including stronger oversight of its facilities, greater reliance on secure release options, and the construction of more civil facilities, which, according to federal officials, would provide a less penal environment for detained immigrants. To date, however, there is little evidence of this promised change.

The Karnes facility is part of the government’s proposed plan to change the system by opening several new facilities across the country. In Essex County, New Jersey, officials have proposed an upgrade and expansion of the Essex County Correctional Facility to hold hundreds more detained immigrants. This has elicited stiff opposition from local advocates who have witnessed poor medical treatment, lack of access to legal assistance, and other abuses at ICE facilities in NJ and elsewhere at the hands of the same entities with whom ICE plans to partner to enact reform.

In addition to Karnes and Essex County, ICE officials intend to expand or build new facilities in or around Miami, Chicago, the Carolinas and San Francisco, increasing the reach of an already overextended and unaccountable detention system rife with abuse.

ICE claims that these new facilities will replace existing beds in problematic facilities, yet no commitment has been made to close a single bed in any location, and there has been no indication of when it might make such a commitment. The government also continues to seek partnerships with entities that have helped create this abusive and dysfunctional system.

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