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As Homeland Security rethinks private immigrant detention, a look at the boom in detainees

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Many immigrants who are awaiting or fighting deportation around the U.S. are held by federal officials in privately run detention centers, a system that is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Many immigrants who are awaiting or fighting deportation around the U.S. are held by federal officials in privately run detention centers, a system that is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Federal Department of Homeland Security officials announced recently that they are weighing whether to continue using private prison companies to operate immigrant detention centers, after years of lawsuits and allegations of mistreatment of detainees.

The move followed an announcement in mid-August by the U.S. Department of Justice that it would phase out its use of private prisons, with officials stating in a memo that private prisons "do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs...they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."

There are roughly 33,000 immigrants held in detention on any given day around the country. Today, Take Two explores how private contractors came to play a large role.

Why are so many immigrants held in detention? Who are they?

Most of those in detention are immigrants who the federal government says must be held because for several reasons, and are referred to as "mandatory detainees." Some committed a crime in the past and aren't eligible for bond. Others you'll find in detention are asylum seekers who have yet to show they have a credible reason to be fearful of returning home.

Has it always been this way?

No. A couple of decades ago, there were relatively few immigrants in detention. But a few things happened: Illegal immigration climbed in the 1990s and peaked in the early 2000s. Most importantly, U.S. immigration laws and policies changed, and became tighter.

The biggest change affecting immigrant detention occurred after the adoption of two pieces of legislation in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRARA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Both made more immigrants deportable and detainable.

A broad range of criminal offenses were re-categorized into what are called “aggravated felonies,” including some misdemeanors. Immigrants convicted of an aggravated felony could be deported after serving their sentences. They became mandatory detainees, which meant they were detained while awaiting or fighting deportation. Included were legal residents, who lost much of their protection from deportation.

The detainee population continued to grow after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as immigration policies grew tighter.

So where do the private detention  contractors come in?

Private contractors have become a bigger part of the detention picture since 9/11. In the past, immigration officials were able to hold most detainees in what are called Service Processing Centers, a handful of government-operated facilities around the country.

But demand for bed space grew: In 2005, there were a little over 19,000 immigrants in daily detention. Now there are as many as between 33,000 and 34,000.  So the federal government began relying increasingly on contracts to handle the needs of so many people.

The 2016 Homeland Security budget provides $3.3 billion for immigrant detention and removal.

Who is holding all these immigrants now?

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds immigrant detainees in a hodgepodge of more than 400 facilities around the U.S. Much of it is contracted space.

It's a mix: Detention space contracted directly from private prison companies, detention space in county or city jails contracted from local governments, or detention space contracted from a city or county, but run by a private contractor.

The latter arrangement exists at the Adelanto Detention Facility, the largest in the state, about 90 miles from Los Angeles. ICE contracts with the city, which in turn contracts with a private prison company that runs the detention center. The city gets a cut.

Detention contracts typically pay for what's called a "man-day," with a set fee per immigrant, per day. For example, as recently as April, ICE was paying $112.50 per detainee, per day at Adelanto.

The private facilities are mostly run by a few companies. Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group  are the two biggest ones. GEO operates the detention center in Adelanto.

Why is Homeland Security reviewing its use of private detention contractors?

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson's statement didn't specify why. But there have been problems over the years, including lawsuits tied to issues like overcrowding and medical negligence.

Federal inspectors who have looked into detainee deaths and other issues have pointed out concerns as well. Private detention facilities aren't the only ones that have had problems, but these have been under the microscope.

ICE officials and their contractors say they have worked to make improvements. For example, in Adelanto, The Geo Group changed its medical provider this year after problems there.

What is happening related to immigrant detention in California?

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have barred cities and counties from participating in detention contracts with private companies. This would have affected Adelanto and two other local governments in California that benefit from detention contracts.

In his veto message, Gov. Brown wrote that one reason he decided not to sign the bill is because the federal government is looking into private detention now.

What happens next?

A Homeland Security committee has until Nov. 30 to report back with recommendations on continued use of private detention contractors.

Meanwhile, ICE officials say they need these contractors – they say without them, it would cost billions more to build enough government detention centers. 

In recent years, ICE has made more use of electronic monitoring, using ankle bracelets. But the agency holds that detention centers are necessary.

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