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ICE Prisons

Demonstrators protest U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in New York City on February 6, 2021. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

220+ Groups Blast Biden Plan to Expand 'Harmful, Abusive, and Unjust' ICE Prisons

"It's not too late for the administration to take the moral high ground here and put a stop to ICE's cruel, costly, and unnecessary detention expansion."

Brett Wilkins

More than 220 human rights groups on Friday sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas expressing their outrage over the administration's plans to reopen and expand immigration detention centers in violation of the president's campaign promises.

"We call on President Biden and DHS to reverse course and immediately end private immigration detention, while moving aggressively towards the abolition of all immigration detention."

The groups—which include Detention Watch Network, the Shut Down Berks Coalition, JUNTOS, National Immigrant Justice Center, the ACLU, and CASA—are demanding that the administration halt the planned expansion of the privately run Berks County Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Pennsylvania and the reopening of the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility also in Pennsylvania, as an ICE lockup.

In a January executive order, Biden announced the phasing out of Department of Justice contracts with private prisons. The order did not, however, cover other federal agencies that contract with private prisons, including those run by ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"ICE's decision to open Moshannon Valley and convert Berks in Pennsylvania contradicts and undermines this administration's commitments to reform and the efforts of community members in Pennsylvania," the letter states. "ICE appears to be trying to make up for other facility closures in the Northeast United States by making Pennsylvania an immigration prison hub."

"As more states and county governments take measures towards phasing out ICE detention, the administration should take the opportunity to release people and limit enforcement operations in response to public outcry, not allow ICE to expand to new regions," the letter argues. "It is hard if not impossible for the civil rights community to take seriously this administration's intentions for detention reform, when its actions so blatantly contradict them."

The groups are calling on the administration to:

  • Immediately terminate the contracts signed last week with Clearfield County for the Moshannon Valley facility and Berks County for the Berks facility;
  • Halt all other efforts to expand the ICE detention system through any new or extended ICE contracts;
  • Apply the executive order on privately operated prisons to end immigration detention contracts with private prison companies and local governments; and
  • Take significant steps to dismantle the system of mass immigrant incarceration and the use of detention for asylum processing.

Detention Watch advocacy director Setareh Ghandehari said that "the Biden administration has made detention central to its response to migration. This is a choice we are deeply disappointed in." 

"Immigration detention is inherently harmful, abusive, and unjust," she continued. "Biden's continued actions to inflate the immigration detention system despite the administration's ongoing promises to end the use of for-profit detention and roll back ICE's fundamentally flawed system is shameful. Biden must act on his promise to bring justice and fairness to the immigration system."

CASA legal director Nick Katz said his organization's more than 120,000 members "have felt the devastating impact of immigration detention for decades."

"It has left them physically and emotionally scarred, separated mothers and fathers from their children, and stacked the odds further against them in a broken immigration system," he continued.

"We are outraged that the Biden administration has utterly failed to live up to its promise to dramatically scale back immigration detention, instead fighting against state and local governments who have taken commonsense measures to protect their residents from the damage done by these facilities," Katz added. "We call on President Biden and DHS to reverse course and immediately end private immigration detention, while moving aggressively towards the abolition of all immigration detention."

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the National Prison Project of the ACLU, said in a statement that "ICE's decision to expand private prisons blatantly contradicts President Biden's commitments to end private prisons for all, including immigrants."

"It's not too late," she added, "for the administration to take the moral high ground here and put a stop to ICE's cruel, costly, and unnecessary detention expansion."

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