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Emails show how private firms profit from ICE detention centers

Documents provide rare glimpse into dealings between private detention companies and government officials

Razor wire is strung along the U.S. and Mexican sides of a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, in August. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Razor wire is strung along the U.S. and Mexican sides of a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, in August. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On Feb. 6, 2019, Jill Grant, chief financial officer of Immigration Centers of America, emailed the town treasurer of Farmville, Virginia, where her company operates an immigrant detention center.

“I’m feeling lucky today so I wanted to check on our funds. Has anything shown up?” she wrote.

[Trump wants to reprogram DHS money for ICE detention operations]

Nothing had, the town official told her: “I will keep checking during the day as always.”

Emails and invoices viewed by CQ Roll Call show that ICA was awaiting payment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for at least $1.8 million in February for running operations at the Farmville facility, which has around 700 beds. The Farmville treasurer appeared to mediate the transfer of that payment — and the town received a $20,500 cut from it.

These documents, obtained by the advocacy group National Immigrant Justice Center through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with Virginia authorities, provide a rare glimpse of the dealings between private detention companies and government officials.

They “show how cold and calculated the exchanges are when dealing with transferring money for a detention center, where they’re making decisions that have a major impact on human lives,” said Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at NIJC. The group has been tracking detention contracts as part of a transparency initiative.

The invoices show that ICE pays $120 per day for each person held at Farmville, and an additional $28 per person when the total number of detainees exceeds 500.

“Taken altogether, the paper trail really shows this profit-driven incentivization for mass incarceration of immigrants,” Franzblau said.

ICA said it stands by its relationship with Farmville.

“We think this public-private partnership has been a success, not just because of how efficiently our facility is run, but also due to the high quality and standards by which we operate and treat those in our care,” an ICA spokesperson said in an email to CQ Roll Call.

[Inside Homestead: A tour of the Florida camp for migrant children]

In recent months, congressional attention has largely fallen on Customs and Border Protection facilities at the border. But those make up only one part of a vast and complex immigrant detention apparatus that involves several federal agencies, local governments and private contractors.

This week brings renewed attention to ICE detention facilities, with hearings Thursday on the topic by the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.

As of Sept. 21, ICE had detained 51,302 people across the nation. Its network of detention centers has grown immensely over time, as tracked by Freedom For Immigrants, an advocacy group. Privately owned and operated detention centers hold around 73 percent of ICE detainees on any given day. Public facilities, usually local jails, hold a smaller share of a population largely being detained for administrative, not punitive reasons.

“It’s a wake-up call to people … to see how [the system] really expanded in the last 20-30 years,” said Sarah Gardiner, FFI’s policy director.

Poor conditions, flimsy oversight

Earlier this year, the Farmville center, like many other ICE facilities, experienced a mumps outbreak. Detainees were not initially offered vaccinations. Instead, they were quarantined and denied outside visits. When some detainees refused meals to protest, the center’s operators came down hard on them — using force and pepper spray in one incident.

This account comes from a lawsuit some detainees later filed in July against ICA officials and ICE field officers. The complaint was later dismissed upon the release of some plaintiffs.

“We’re unaware of any accusations of abuses,” ICA said when asked about these and previous charges of abuse. “ICA is committed to providing the most protective, quality care alternative to housing individuals detained for civil immigration violations in jails.”

Farmville isn’t the only facility associated with allegations of abuse over the last decade. A 2019 Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report noted “nooses in detainee cells, improper and overly restrictive segregation, and untimely and inadequate detainee medical care” at ICE detention centers.

[ICE detention facilities don’t meet national standards, IG says]

Another recent IG report found that ICE’s current inspection process for its facilities did “not ensure adequate oversight or systemic improvements in detention conditions, with some deficiencies remaining unaddressed for years.” ICE officials themselves described some inspections as “very, very, very difficult to fail” and “useless” to IG investigators.

Some members of Congress have started to conduct their own site visits. Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado announced this year that his office would inspect the GEO Group-run facility in Aurora, Colorado, every Monday and then publicize the findings.

“The government works better when there’s transparency … so we started to show up,” Crow said at a recent congressional briefing on the issue.

Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California has made several visits to his state’s Adelanto facility. On his last visit, he found cells with more than 60 detainees — many from the Indian subcontinent — holding up signs signaling problems they faced. He heard complaints of mold and unclean bathrooms. At one point, he also walked through an area that an officer said was used to quarantine anyone exposed to mumps.

“The real frustration among detainees inside was that they were being delayed to go into their hearings,” Takano told CQ Roll Call. “That extends the amount of time at the facility … All of this works for the benefit of the for-profit.”

Several Democrats have introduced legislation to tackle these issues.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington re-introduced their bill that would strengthen oversight over ICE facilities and curb further proliferation. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced legislation that seeks to limit for-profit detention. Rep. Anthony G. Brown of Maryland has introduced a bill that would require vulnerable migrants to be placed in case management programs instead of detention.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has released an extensive agenda that seeks to end private detention centers altogether, and to make sure all private contractors are subject to public records requests. Warren, Harris and Booker are running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Trump administration has been clear about its intent to keep migrants — including families — in detention, arguing that their release would be a “pull factor” attracting more migrants. With immigration court backlogs topping 1 million cases, detainees waiting for their day in court are increasingly being denied requests for release, advocates say. Meanwhile, relatively cheaper programs offering alternatives to detention have been discontinued.

In response, ICE is quietly opening new detention centers, and private companies, including ICA, are champing at the bit to run them.

Advocates say that going forward, concerned lawmakers shouldn’t just be limiting funds for detention and improving oversight of facilities.

“It’s not just enough just to be focusing on detention standards,” Gardiner said. “We need to be focusing on why people are detained in the first place.”

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