Press Release

May 15, 2024
Senators Urge Closure of Inhumane Immigration Detention Centers

WASHINGTON — Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), wrote to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), urging them to phase out the use of private detention centers, and close four facilities with well-documented inhumane conditions.

Today, ICE detains between 36,000 and 40,000 individuals, 91 percent of whom are held in private detention facilities. Over half of the public opposes the use of private detention facilities to hold asylum seekers. 

In 2021, President Biden ordered an end to the federal government’s use of private prisons, but did not extend the order to immigration detention facilities. Now, the lawmakers are calling for an end to the use of private immigration detention centers entirely, with a focus on four facilities in Estancia, New Mexico; Winnfield, Louisiana; Adelanto, California; and Farmville, Virginia. These facilities have well-documented horrific conditions, such as “yellow drinking water,” forced sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, limited access to legal counsel, and violent retaliation against those who complain. Multiple Biden administration officials and members of Congress have called for the closure of these four facilities due to their poor conditions and high costs. 

DHS’s own oversight bodies – the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Office for Civil Rights Civil Liberties (CRCL), and Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman (OIDO) – have recommended closing some of these facilities. The senators expressed that while stronger oversight is important for all ICE facilities, facilities that repeatedly violate applicable standards should be closed altogether. 

Additionally, just two private immigration detention companies dominate the immigration detention market, GEO and CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), raking in $1 billion and $552 million respectively from ICE just in 2022. Skyrocketing profits have created a financial incentive to lobby for an expansion of ICE’s detention footprint, and these companies have spent millions doing so.

“The federal government should not pay private facilities with continuously problematic conditions,” wrote the lawmakers. “Upon termination of contracts, ICE should pursue community-based alternatives to detention, which provide immigrants with resources that help them integrate into their communities and stay with their families.”

“We do not support a system that detains people in inhumane conditions that result in long-term medical issues, psychological trauma, and sometimes death,” concluded the senators. “We urge that these facilities be shut down, in a step towards building an immigration system that welcomes and respects migrants.”

“It has long been clear that immigration detention is a fundamentally flawed, inhumane, and unnecessary system that needs to end. ICE and the private prison corporations and local entities it contracts with ignore and cover up these inhumane conditions, allowing the system to continue operating without repercussions exacerbating abuse. The upcoming contract expirations for four notoriously abusive facilities (Winn, Torrance, Adelanto, and Farmville) provide yet another opportunity for the Biden administration to change course and return to his promises to bring fairness to the immigration system and phase out the federal government’s use of private detention,” said Hillary Li, Policy Council at the Detention Watch Network

“Every day the U.S. government incarcerates tens of thousands of immigrants in prisons run by private companies who profit off depriving immigrants of basic liberty and tearing them from their loved ones. The Biden administration knows that placing a profit motive on the imprisonment of any person is unjust and creates perverse incentives that lead to human rights violations because it ended the use of private prisons in the criminal legal system three years ago. It is long overdue that this nation of immigrants extends that same basic justice and dignity to immigrants by ending the U.S. immigration system’s reliance on inhumane detention,” said Nayna Gupta, Associate Director of Policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“Our government’s fundamental responsibility to promote the well-being of our communities is in direct conflict with corporations that are motivated by greed to put the most people behind bars. Countless investigations and reports have proven that lives are in danger any time they are in ICE custody, regardless of whether the facilities are privately or publicly operated. We urge the Department of Homeland Security to take critical steps towards building a humane immigration system by terminating the contracts for the facilities listed in this letter and by immediately phasing out the use of private detention,” said Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project.

The senators also requested a complete list of all public and private ICE detention facilities, unredacted copies of the most recent contracts for the four worst facilities, and a timeline for ending contracts at those four facilities.

Senator Warren has long called for holding immigration authorities accountable and pushed for the humane treatment of migrants held in detention centers: 

  • In March 2024, Senator Warren co-led a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Patrick Lechleitner, calling for ICE to limit and phase out solitary confinement while finding meaningful alternatives so that detainees receive the same rights as others in ICE detention, including access to counsel, telephones, visitation, food and hygiene. 
  • In January 2023, Senator Warren and nearly 70 other lawmakers urged President Biden to reverse his Administration’s expansion of the inhumane Trump-era border policy known as Title 42 and to abandon the proposed asylum “transit ban” rule. The lawmakers also encouraged the President and his Administration to work with Congress to develop safe, humane, and orderly border policies that enforce our immigration laws and uphold the right to asylum under domestic and international law.
  • In January 2020, Senator Warren led a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) questioning their anti-corruption policies and practices after a series of high-profile officials responsible for oversight of the private prison and detention industry left to join the biggest companies in the industry.
  • In September 2019, Senator Warren led colleagues in sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and HHS regarding the decision not to vaccinate families in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention ahead of flu season and argued that the decision threatens the health of detainees, CBP personnel, and others.
  • In August 2019, Senators Warren, Markey (D-Mass.), and Representative Pressley (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), expressing their strong opposition to the agency’s decision to indefinitely suspend new asylum interviews in the Boston Asylum Sub-Office and re-assign staff to the southern border. 
  • In July 2019, Senator Warren wrote an oversight letter to ICE regarding reports that ICE has secretly transferred migrants to three new for-profit detention facilities.
  • In June 2019, Senator Warren wrote to ICE expressing concern and requesting information regarding the agency’s reported misuse of solitary confinement at detention facilities. 
  • In June 2019, Senator Warren joined Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai’i) in calling for the federal government to investigate federal contractors in charge of migrant children detained after crossing the U.S. southern border. 
  • In May 2019, Senator Warren sent letters to private prison operators, DHS, the Bureau of Prisons, and the American Correctional Association regarding the accreditation of private prison and immigration detention facilities. 
  • In May 2019, following reports that two additional children had died in the custody of CBP, Senator Warren sent a letter demanding answers about conditions that lead to the deaths of five children in the span of six months. 
  • In April 2019, Senator Warren released the prison companies’ responses, which revealed that neither the companies nor their private auditor have taken responsibility for egregious failures identified by the DHS IG, and also revealed an ongoing dispute between the Nakamoto Group, the contractor responsible for auditing detention facilities, and the IG about the quality of Nakamoto’s inspections. 
  • In November 2018, Senator Warren questioned GEO Group and CoreCivic about their compliance with federal immigration detention standards following a DHS IG report about unsafe conditions and mistreatment of immigrants at a number of privately-run immigration detention centers. 
  • In November 2018, Senator Warren sent a letter to Nakamoto Group asking them a series of questions about the thoroughness of their inspections of immigration detention facilities following a DHS IG report about their inadequacy.