An advisory panel to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson today unexpectedly rejected its own subcommittee’s conclusion that immigration officials should continue to rely on private contractors to hold thousands of immigrants facing deportation.
All told, the Homeland Security Advisory Council made 14 recommendations on private detention, including the need for enhanced oversight, more resources, expanded health care and to negotiate with county jails, which often hold detainees, to improve conditions. The panel also called on Congress to support these efforts.
“Because legitimate restriction on physical liberty is inherently and exclusively a governmental authority, much could be said for a fully government-owned and government-operated detention model, if one were starting a new detention system from scratch,” the subcommittee wrote in its draft report.
THE TRUTH WILL NOT REVEAL ITSELF
But whether the report will carry any weight with the incoming Trump administration seems tenuous in light of President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to deport upward of 2 million people in the country illegally or because they’ve engaged in crime. Shares of private prison stock shot up soon after his election.
Johnson did not comment on the report or the surprise recommendation. Gillian Christiansen, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees immigration detention, will consider the recommendations and implement changes where appropriate.
The advisory panel’s position was a stunning departure that had immigration advocates and reformers scrambling to rethink – and rewrite – their reactions to the anticipated recommendations.
Carl Takei, an attorney with the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s significant because the advisory group is not composed of immigration advocates or idealists. He added that whether or not the Trump administration follows the recommendations, they send a clear message.
“These are former Homeland Security officials, corporate CEOs. The fact that they are recommending that Homeland Security should shift away from using private prisons is huge,” he said. “The Trump administration can either choose to go with the evidence or ignore the evidence.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stringent restrictions on immigration, said there’s no question ICE needs private detention facilities, and the agency has already spent millions of dollars to fund them.
“It shows how politicized that (advisory) group is,” she said. “What they don’t want is detention. Let’s face it. What they really don’t like is immigration enforcement.”
Following the Justice Department’s August announcement to reduce and eventually eliminate its use of private prisons, Johnson tasked the advisory council of 40 former senior Homeland Security and law enforcement officials, retired generals, members of Congress, security consultants and other business leaders to review the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s use of private jails.
A subcommittee, in turn, spent two months examining the issue, including visits to private and ICE-run jails. The Subcommittee on Privatized Immigration Detention Facilities, made up of former government officials, immigrant-rights advocates and other consultants, cited the recent surge of migrants arriving to the Southwest border for the need for continued use of private prisons.
Driven by the uptick in migrants primarily from Central American countries but also Haiti and elsewhere, the number of detained immigrants has ballooned beyond the mandated daily average of 34,000 to roughly 41,000, according to recent Homeland Security figures.
The panel found that 65 percent of detainees are held in private facilities, with another 25 percent locked up in county jails that contract with the federal government. ICE uses 197 adult lockups and jails around the country, according to agency figures. In its report, the reviewers said the core question was not who runs the facilities, but how they are run.
Marshall Fitz, a subcommittee member, dissented, saying that the reliance on private prisons was not inevitable. Fitz, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he previously led its immigration policy arm, proposed an amendment to the report recommending to phase out privately run detention. Seventeen of the advisory group’s 22 members who attended today’s meeting agreed, voting to amend the draft report before sending it to Johnson.
Fitz, explaining his dissent in the draft report, said that the overall enforcement policy, historical reliance on private prisons and geographic concerns drive the use of those facilities, and any shift away would “take years, carry significant costs and require congressional partnership.” He still called for a “measured but deliberate shift” away from private prisons.
“I understand the position adopted by the subcommittee, but I disagree that these obstacles require our deference to the status quo,” he wrote.