POLITICS

Activists urge Obama to stop using private prison companies to run immigration detention centers

MCALLEN, TX - SEPTEMBER 08:  A boy from Honduras watches a movie at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house the children after tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the border illegally into the United States during the spring and summer. Although the flow of underage immigrants has since slowed greatly, thousands of them are now housed in centers around the United States as immigration courts process their cases. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: A boy from Honduras watches a movie at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house the children after tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the border illegally into the United States during the spring and summer. Although the flow of underage immigrants has since slowed greatly, thousands of them are now housed in centers around the United States as immigration courts process their cases. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

Immigration advocates are pressing the Obama administration to expand its decision to phase out the use of private prison for federal inmates to include immigrants being held in such facilities.

Last week, a memo was made public in which Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed the Bureau of Prisons to begin scaling back “and ultimately ending” the Justice Department’s use of private prison management companies to hold federal inmates.

The Obama administration made the move following a recent Justice Department audit that noted that privately run prisons have more safety and security problems than facilities operated by the government.

But the decision so far does not affect the use of private prison companies – such as Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, and the GEO Group, the two largest such corporations – to hold immigrants, many of whom who are detained because of civil immigration violations.

Some 34,000 immigrants are being held in such facilities, under the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, pending deportation or resolution of their cases.

These facilities have been dogged for decades by concerns over substandard living conditions, neglect of medical problems, and poor treatment by guards and other facility staffers ranging from hostility to physical abuse.

Such detainees come under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 Latino rights groups from across the nation, sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to expand the phasing out of private prisons to people held under the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Immigration.

“These companies turn a profit by allowing deplorable and inhumane conditions to overtake their facilities,” wrote Hector Sanchez, NHLA chair and executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “The same is true at privately operated immigration detention facilities. We urge the Obama Administration to extend its decision to include them."

The federal prison population is now at 193,299. More than 22,000 of those inmates are held in prisons run by private corporations. The cuts call for the federal inmate population in private prisons to decline to 14,200 by next year.

Besides concerns about conditions and cost, federal officials had been considering scaling back the use of private jailers because of a reduction over the years in the prison population due to changes in sentencing and less strict drug policies.

The number of immigrants detainees also had fallen somewhat as less people were attempting to cross over the border, among other things. But then the numbers began to rise again with mass detentions of Central Americans who formed part of a surge of people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, many of them requesting asylum.

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Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.