Immigration officials are moving 1,000 detainees, including asylum seekers, to a medium-security federal prison building in Victorville, Calif.
In all, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has contracted with the Bureau of Prisons to house more than 1,600 detainees among five facilities in California, Washington, Texas, Oregon and Arizona.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement is working to meet the demand for additional immigration detention space, both long and short term,” said Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman. “To meet this need, ICE is collaborating with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, private detention facility operators and local government agencies.”
Though immigration courts have been backlogged for years, the immigration detention system began showing signs of clogging in the fall of 2017, when lines of asylum seekers waiting for room to be processed started appearing outside of the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico.
Changes in detention policy have meant that more people waiting for court dates stay in custody longer. ICE has the option to release people on “parole” using ankle monitors or check-ins as alternatives to detention, but for many in the immigration system, that has become rare.
ICE used to have a policy of releasing pregnant women unless there was a special circumstance — the agency now holds them until their last trimester.
The Supreme Court this year also vacated a 9th Circuit ruling that required ICE to give detainees at facilities in its jurisdiction bond hearings every six months. While the Supreme Court sent the decision back to the circuit court with instructions to re-decide the case, ICE still is holding many, including asylum seekers who asked for help at a port of entry, in mandatory detention.
Bennett said the agency needed the extra bed space because of a “surge in illegal border crossings” and because of the Department of Justice’s recently implemented zero-tolerance policy on illegal crossings.
Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border apprehended more people so far in 2018 than 2017 by 91 percent, with 168,601 people caught this year compared with 88,171 the previous year.
This year’s apprehensions are similar to those from 2016 during the same time frame. Agents arrested 161,572 people between January and May in 2016, a 4 percent difference from this year’s total.
Looking at the longer-term trend, illegal crossings have been trending down since at least 2000. That year, agents arrested 963,716 people crossing illegally, more than five times the current apprehension total.
The zero-tolerance policy refers people who cross the border illegally for criminal prosecution in federal court where they are held by the U.S. Marshals Service, not ICE.
People in ICE custody are civil detainees waiting for hearings in immigration court. ICE does not have authority to hold people as punishment.
“This removes any doubt whatsoever that the supposedly ‘civil’ immigration detention system is really just a system of mass imprisonment without trial,” said Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego. “Asylum seekers do not belong in prisons, nor do people pursuing lawful avenues to stay with their families in the U.S.”
The move raises many logistical questions about how the prison will handle certain requirements for the immigrant detainees.
Immigration detention facilities often have courtrooms inside. Judges are either staffed to the court, or detainees appear in a court outside the facility via teleconference.
Signs with consulate phone numbers and ICE hotline information are posted inside the facilities, and detainees are supposed to be able to call their consulates for free.
Many do not speak English and need translation services. They also need a law library with immigration law materials.
ICE spokeswoman Bennett said that the move is supposed to be short term.
“The use of BOP facilities is intended to be a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides,” she said.
Under a California law passed in June last year, state and local facilities are forbidden from adding new contracts for ICE detention or expanding old ones.
The first bus of about 250 detainees is scheduled to arrive in Victorville on Friday morning around 8 a.m. from Texas, according to an official from the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents federal prison workers.
Eric Young, AFGE Council of Prison Locals national president, called the situation “a nightmare.”
He worried about understaffing at the facility and emphasized that the situation could be dangerous both for prison employees and ICE detainees.
Nine housing units at the prison were previously closed, Young said, because the prison didn’t have enough people to staff them.
“They’re opening them all back up with no new staff,” Young said. “It raises red flags for us.”
Even teachers and other staff who don’t normally work as correctional officers will get pulled in to help supervise the influx of prisoners through a process called “augmented staff.” That means they won’t be able to provide normal programming services to help inmates with rehabilitation, Young said.
Staff at the prison received a couple of days’ notice that inmates would be moving to another building to make way for ICE detainees. Young worried that medium-security inmates might still have a way to “prey upon” ICE detainees, something that he says they see happen to nonviolent offenders who end up in the prison population.
“They’re going to be in a prison environment, and that’s unprecedented,” Young said. “It’s going to be a very different experience for them.”
He predicted that it would have a “chilling effect” on more people coming to the border.
“I think that’s the whole purpose of the department partnering up with ICE, basically sending a message to deter people to try to come in the country illegally,” Young said. “Every time those doors slam, those metal doors slam behind you, it sends a chill down your spine knowing you’re about to enter a place you might not come out of. You know you’re in a prison when you go into one of our facilities.”
Detainees will sleep in small cells that lock every night — a marked difference from immigration detention facilities such as the one at Otay Mesa Detention Center that have a more open design in the housing units.
Young also said that prison employees hadn’t been trained how to supervise immigrant detainees.
“We don’t know the protocols of how those detainees are to be treated, how they’re to be talked to, how they’re to be instructed,” Young said. “Are these individuals going to need to be strip-searched, randomly searched and patted down like we do inmates, or are we going to be told we don’t do those things? Those are things we routinely do every day.
“We don’t know if we even have the jurisdiction to oversee these people,” he added.
© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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