On January 26, less than a week into his term, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14006, directing the Department of Justice to end the contracting of prisons to private corporations. While this was simply the reinstatement of an Obama-era policy rescinded by former president Donald Trump in 2017, the order represented a substantial improvement over the status quo and possibly signaled the Biden administration’s willingness to address some of the most egregious elements of the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, this policy change permits one glaring exception: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may still contract private corporations to operate immigration “detention centers.” Private immigration prisons maintain some of the most disturbing and brutal conditions within the American prison system, including discrimination against LGBT inmates and widespread labor abuses. In October 2020, detention centers came under intensified scrutiny after individuals held at a privately operated ICE prison in Georgia reported being forced into receiving hysterectomies. While prohibiting the private contracting of immigrant detention centers was a core plank of Biden’s criminal justice platform during the 2020 election, the president has so far taken no action on this front.
Biden’s exception for private immigration prisons is deliberate, resulting from the uniquely privatized nature of immigration detention. While only 8 percent of today’s general federal prison population is held in private prisons, 73 percent of immigrant detainees are incarcerated in corporate facilities. Eliminating private immigration prisons would eliminate the vast majority of immigration prisons nationwide, forcing the federal government to either shut down hundreds of facilities or operate them publicly.
Multinational corporations such as GEO Group and CoreCivic form the backbone of American immigration detention, operating large-scale independent prisons and contracting with hundreds of local jails throughout the nation. ICE relies on the private sector to imprison over five hundred thousand undocumented immigrants per year.
The bizarre “public-private” nature of immigration detention didn’t develop in a vacuum. A brief history of immigration detention demonstrates that the immigration prison industry is a product of the neoliberal shift toward privatization and deregulation. Modern immigration detention is rooted in the late 1970s and ’80s, as political turmoil in Haiti and Fidel Castro’s loosening of emigration restrictions resulted in hundreds of thousands of Haitian and Cuban immigrants migrating to the United States. Arriving in search of stability and economic opportunity, these individuals were part of the largest increase in immigration to the United States since World War II. These immigrants were met with hostility by much of the American public and the Ronald Reagan administration, who quickly instituted harsh detention policies and built makeshift “resettlement centers.”
During this time, the American political system was undergoing a historic political realignment toward neoliberalism. As Reagan cut income taxes and pushed austerity measures under the banner of limiting “government waste and inefficiency,” his administration identified privatized incarceration as a possible source of savings. Immigration detention served as a critical stepping point toward private prisons, as the burgeoning nature of the industry allowed for more private-sector experimentation compared to the already established federal prison system.
Both the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) and the Wackenhut Corporation (now GEO Group) received their first federal contracts in the 1980s; these agreements were for immigration prisons in Houston, Texas, and Aurora, Colorado. These corporations and several others quickly built a sprawling network of private immigration prisons.
These detention centers allow the government to obfuscate their responsibility for the vile conditions of immigration prisons. While government-run prisons often engage in disturbing practices, they are subject to a larger degree of public oversight. Private detention centers are not required to engage with Freedom of Information Act requests and are free to withhold information including the number of deaths and sexual assaults that occur while in custody from the public.
The most direct solution for the abuses of immigration detention would be abolition. While private detention centers are uniquely dangerous, immigration prisons, in general, are an unnecessary abuse of state power. The view, advocated by right-wing defenders of detention centers, that their continued existence protects national security does not stand up to evidence. Seventy-nine percent of detainees have no criminal record or have only committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation. While the criminalization of undocumented immigrants ultimately stems from a broken and exploitative immigration system, closing immigration prisons is a necessary first step in protecting vulnerable individuals and families.
Unfortunately, systematic change seems unlikely. While immigration detention has faced unprecedented public opposition over the past several years, business is still thriving. Since Biden’s inauguration, ICE has entered into multiple contracts with private prison corporations, valued at over $260 million. The Biden administration’s failure to act against corporations like GEO Group and CoreCivic demonstrates the president’s established reluctance to challenge the most disturbing elements of the neoliberal economy. Until he fulfills his campaign promise to abolish private immigration prisons, Biden’s supposed commitment to building a “fair and humane immigration system” rings hollow.