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Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks during a press conference outside the DFL Headquarters on August 5, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Monday spearheaded a letter by two dozen progressive lawmakers calling on the Biden administration to end contracts with state and local jails. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) 

Omar Leads Letter Urging Biden to End ICE Contracts With Local Jails

The lawmakers' letter decried detention abuses including "medical neglect, long-term use of solitary confinement, sexual assault, and lack of access to legal counsel."

Brett Wilkins

Amid a surge of migrants—including unaccompanied minors—flocking to the U.S., Rep. Ilhan Omar led a Monday letter from two dozen progressive House Democrats urging the Biden administration to "sever the financial incentives" fueling an "abuse-ridden system of mass incarceration" by ending immigrant detention contracts with local jails. 

"In order to truly sever the financial incentives causing the expansion of an unnecessary and abuse-ridden system of mass incarceration, we urge you to end contracts between the federal government and localities for the purposes of immigration detention."
—Lawmakers' letter

While applauding President Joe Biden's January executive order phasing out Department of Justice contracts with private prisons as an "important step," Omar (D-Minn.) called on the administration to issue another directive to end contracts between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and state, county, and local jails and prisons.

Noting that ICE often pays localities "substantially higher" rates for jailing migrants than for other inmates, Omar wrote that such a financial incentive "has fueled the expansion of immigrant detention throughout the country."

"Conditions in municipal, county, and state jails and prisons contracting with ICE to detain immigrants mirror the systemic abuses in privately operated immigration detention facilities, including medical neglect, long-term use of solitary confinement, sexual assault, and lack of access to legal counsel," the letter stated. 

The letter continued:

During the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the most egregious examples of medical neglect and failure to follow public health protocols occurred in locally operated jails and prisons. This includes the Morrow County Jail in Ohio, in which 100% of all immigrants tested positive for Covid-19, after county officials used expired thermometers to conduct temperature checks and failed to implement even basic medical quarantining procedures.

Some of the worst examples of abuse and retaliation against detained immigrants during the Covid-19 pandemic also occurred in jails and prisons operated by localities, including an incident at the Bristol County Jail in Massachusetts in which the sheriff's office unleashed dogs and pepper spray against detained immigrants, resulting in at least two hospitalizations.

"In order to truly sever the financial incentives causing the expansion of an unnecessary and abuse-ridden system of mass incarceration, we urge you to end contracts between the federal government and localities for the purposes of immigration detention," the letter concluded. 

The lawmakers' letter came amid reports of a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children being held in U.S. custody.

As Common Dreams reported Monday, the Biden administration over the weekend ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid in the government's response to the crisis. The move came amid reports of overcrowding and squalid conditions in which children reportedly must take turns sleeping on floors and have gone long periods without basic health and hygiene practices like showers and access to sunlight. 

Addressing the crisis in a weekend interview with Politico, Omar—who lived in refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the U.S. with members of her Somali family when she was a young girl—urged the administration to move as quickly as possible to deliver relief to jailed migrants and undo the most egregious damage of the Trump era. 

"The longer we sort of slow-walk that restoration of normalcy and how we would address the issues at the border with migrants—whether they're adults or children—the [worse] the problem gets," Omar insisted. "Once we think of the humans at the border as humans... we will have policies that are just, humane, and give them dignity."


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