San Antonio (AP) – Minimum occupancy quotas at immigrant detention facilities nationwide benefit for-profit prison operators by guaranteeing the government pays for thousands of detainees, regardless of whether those spots are filled, according to a new report by a group that monitors immigrant detention.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had to pay for 3,255 immigrants daily at five detention facilities in Texas, the most of any state, said the report by the Detention Watch Network. Texas has seen a large wave of immigrants from Central America illegally crossing the state's border with Mexico the past few years.
"Texas is ground zero," said Silky Shah, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Detention Watch Network, which examined contracts and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. "It's sort of like an epidemic of detention there."
The Texas detention facilities that had guaranteed-minimum provisions in their contracts at the time the report research was done were in Houston, El Paso, Pearsall and Karnes City and near Port Isabel. A snapshot of ICE statistics show that it did not pay for empty beds in Texas. The Houston facility exceeded the minimum population of 750, averaging about 900 people the last three years.
During the same time period, the Port Isabel Detention Center averaged about 1,000 people, well above its minimum of 800. And the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall more than doubled its guaranteed-minimum population of 725, averaging about 1,700 people.
The Karnes City facility was retrofitted to house families last summer, and the report says there is no evidence that it still has a guaranteed minimum of 480. The El Paso facility has a guaranteed minimum of 500 people.
At least 10 other detention facilities in New York, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, Arizona and Washington state had guaranteed-minimum populations written into their contracts, bringing the total nationwide to about 8,500, according to the report released Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, criticized the practice, saying it encourages detention. He said he is looking to end the practice through legislation he plans to introduce next week. It would prohibit ICE from signing contracts containing guaranteed-minimum provisions.
"Because anyone who signs a contract and is guaranteed a minimum number every single night is going to fight to keep those numbers in place," Deutch said. "And it only perpetuates a terrible, wasteful, inhumane policy."
ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said guaranteed minimums are common and "allow the agency to procure beds at a reduced rate while giving the contractor the ability to predict the number of detainees held on a regular basis."
The guaranteed-minimum quotas are found in the series of contracts with state and local governments and for-profit private prison contractors that manage facilities for ICE. Even detention facilities owned and operated by ICE have guaranteed minimums in contracts, with private companies providing security, food and other services, according to the report.
These local quotas exist in addition to the so-called "bed mandate," which requires that the Department of Homeland Security maintain at least 34,000 beds available for the detention of immigrants. ICE was criticized in the past for having been quick to fill the mandate, which began in 2009. But more recently, the agency has seen its average daily population numbers fall below quota.
In the first eight months of the fiscal year beginning in October, ICE's immigrant detention facilities have had an average daily population of 26,898, ICE officials said. Still, it must maintain those beds available, which is mandated by Congress.
"In order to meet that mandate and use our limited resources in the most efficient way, we have developed agreements with certain facilities to make available certain numbers of beds to ICE at all times," Elzea said.
Deutch said ICE spends nearly $2 billion annually on detention and that guaranteed-minimum population quotas show how the bed mandate is "being felt at the local level." He advocated for more cost-effective ways of monitoring immigrants in lieu of detention, such as electronic ankle bracelets and supervised release.
Last October, the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized ICE for inefficiency when it did not prioritize detention facilities with guaranteed minimums. The office said in a report that ICE paid for beds that it did not use and recommended the agency "develop an oversight mechanism" to ensure that field offices place detainees in facilities with guaranteed minimums "whenever possible."