In what marks the first large-scale transfer of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees to federal prisons, U.S. correctional facilities in five states will receive a total of around 1,600 persons detained by ICE for being in this country illegally because ICE lacks sufficient space to hold them. ICE announced the new policy on June 7.
As ICE steps up its efforts to deal with a surge of illegal immigration with stepped-up arrests at the border and raids within the nation, it finds insufficient space in its detention facilities and other contracted facilities meant to hold all detainees awaiting civil immigration hearings on deportation or asylum.
Higher numbers of ICE detainees stem from several factors. Would-be border crossers’ numbers fell sharply at the start of the Trump administration, as many assessed whether new enforcement actions would match tough anti-illegal immigration campaign rhetoric. When new Attorney General Jeff Sessions endorsed prosecuting all illegal border crossings, human smuggling operations became both larger-scale and more highly organized.
Also, this March, a presidential directive ended a controversial policy under the Obama administration, derided by opponents as “catch and release,” of freeing ICE detainees who promised, but frequently failed, to show up for later immigration hearings.
Whatever the reason, despite the agency’s building greater capacity, the numbers of ICE detainees mounted. In April a year ago, ICE apprehended about 16,000 persons nationwide; this April it took in about 51,000, both at and near national borders and in raids much further inland. Last year, ICE held a daily average of about 38,100 detainees; its most recent level, according to agency statistics as of May 26, surpassed 41,100.
The largest share of ICE detainees headed to federal prisons, about 1,000, will go to the Victorville prison in southern California, with about 500 medium-security federal inmates being transferred to make room for the new arrivals. The rest of the ICE detainees are to be divided among federal prisons in Arizona (FCI Phoenix), Oregon (FCI Sheridan), Texas (FCI La Tuna), and Washington (FDC SeaTac). According to ICE, its new tactic of temporarily transferring some of its excess detainees to federal prisons is expected to last for only about 120 days.
Unions representing workers at the affected federal prisons are complaining they received little notice of the shift, and say the massive influx could raise safety and staffing issues. An ICE spokesperson notes, to accommodate the overflow in ICE detention facilities, the agency is not only dealing with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but also local jails, privately-run prison companies, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
If federal prison unions are disgruntled with the new policy, immigration advocates are livid and are quick to denounce even the idea of holding an ICE detainee in federal prison. For example, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum described federal prisons as designed for “hardened criminals” and “the worst of the worst,” and thus unsuited for illegal aliens who might just be seeking employment or fleeing violence in their home countries.
They further argue many illegal immigrants have no connection with crime, federal prison staffers have little or no training or experience in dealing with non-criminals, and prison facilities were not built or equipped with the needs of non-native civilians in mind.
A transfer of this size should be planned and thought through, allowing preparations to be made at all levels to accommodate the new additions to these prisons. After all, these are human lives we’re talking about here, not an illegal shipment of electronics.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.