The sprawling detention center in Tacoma, Wash., housed more than 1,300 immigrants on average at the height of former President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. Now nearly four out of every five beds at the facility are empty.
That’s because Immigration and Customs Enforcement released hundreds of people to lower the risk of COVID-19, and because the agency is arresting and detaining fewer unauthorized immigrants under orders from President Biden.
But that doesn’t translate into savings for the U.S. government — or the American taxpayer. In fact, because of the way ICE structures its contracts with private companies and localities that own and operate the detention centers, the agency guarantees it will pay for a minimum number of beds whether they are filled or not.
For dozens of detention centers across the country with these “guaranteed minimums,” ICE pays more than $1 million a day for empty detention beds, according to an NPR analysis.
“The numbers that we have right now on detention are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the nonprofit Detention Watch Network. “But we have the capacity for a lot more, and a lot of those beds continue to get paid for.”
Beyond the Southwest border, where temporary holding facilities are overflowing with unauthorized migrants and children, the Biden administration faces a very different challenge in the interior of the country.
After the number of undocumented immigrants in detention peaked under Trump at more than 55,000, the pandemic hit and President Biden won the election. Since then, the number of immigrants in ICE detention has plummeted to just over 14,000, as immigration detention centers have emptied out.
ICE and the detention companies argue that a guaranteed revenue stream is needed in order to keep operations going.
But these deals have been controversial for years. In February, a government watchdog agency criticized how ICE awards detention contracts.
Now ICE is paying for more unused space than ever before, and a larger national debate has been heating up about whether the government should be locking up many of these immigrants in the first place.
Critics say this isn’t just about money but about the morality of putting immigrants behind bars for civil violations. Many ICE detainees have not been convicted of any crimes.
Shah, from Detention Watch Network, wants to see this system dismantled, and she says having so many guaranteed beds makes that harder.
“I think that’s a real question for the administration,” Shah said. “Do they want to continue to detain people because of what the Trump administration put in place? Or do they want to actually move towards the more morally appropriate position of actually not detaining tons of people.”
ICE does not own or operate most of the facilities in its detention network. Instead, the agency contracts with a patchwork of private operators and county jails. The agency says it guarantees it will pay for about 29,000 beds per day.
This story is playing out across the country. At the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma run by the private detention company GEO Group, the daily detainee population has plunged. But ICE is still paying for about 800 beds that are empty.
“It used to be really, really bustling,” said immigration attorney Alison Hollinz, who would wait hours to visit with clients in the past.
Now Hollinz gets a front-row parking spot and walks right through an empty waiting room. After a recent visit, she said, “There were a total of two attorney visits today, which is very, very different from how it used to be.”
ICE said in a statement that predicting how many immigrants will be detained is a “complex challenge.” According to ICE, it’s a mistake to draw conclusions about its contracting process during a pandemic that has forced the agency to comply with social distancing guidelines in its detention facilities.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office published a report earlier this year documenting a significant jump in the number of guaranteed minimum beds ICE agreed to in detention contracts signed during the Trump administration.
“ICE has not taken a strategic approach to these decisions,” the GAO found, “and has spent millions of dollars a month on unused detention space.”
In preparing its report, the GAO interviewed ICE’s own staff in a number of field offices around the country, and even they raised red flags about these deals that locked in more guaranteed payments.
“They viewed these contracts and agreements where they included guaranteed minimums as not always being in the best interest of the government,” said the GAO’s Rebecca Gambler, who oversaw the report, in an interview.
The number of guaranteed beds in ICE’s detention system grew 45% during the Trump administration, according to the GAO report. As of mid-May 2020, the GAO found that ICE was paying for more than 12,000 empty beds per day, at a cost of more than $20 million a month.
But ICE’s leadership in Washington is pushing back.
The GAO’s findings “lack context,” ICE said in a statement, because the watchdog agency doesn’t take into account the “dramatic fluctuations” in the number of immigrants ICE detained between 2018, when arrests surged, and 2020, when the pandemic struck and authorities released thousands of detainees.
The sudden drop in the detained population is not at all what Trump administration officials expected. In a FY2021 budget proposal from the Department of Homeland Security, ICE requested funding for 60,000 detention beds at a cost of $3.1 billion. The agency received funding for 34,000 beds.
ICE defends the use of guaranteed minimums, arguing they help the agency negotiate a lower rate per detainee.
ICE “is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” the agency said in a statement. “Guaranteed minimums allow the federal government to procure beds at a reduced rate and ultimately save the taxpayer money.”
The private companies that operate these detention facilities like guaranteed minimums, too.
“You can’t just scale up and scale down very quickly in any of our federal facilities,” said George Zoley, the founder and CEO of GEO Group, one of the private detention companies that together account for 80% of ICE’s detention beds.
On an earnings call with investors in February, Zoley explained that these operators are required by ICE to have a certain number of people on staff — and that staffing up can’t be done quickly.
“That’s because it takes so long through the clearance process to bring any new employee on board. It’s a matter of several weeks if not months,” Zoley said.
Zoley also said that while the pandemic clobbered the nation’s economy, these minimum payments helped cushion the blow for GEO Group.
“It could have been much worse if there weren’t for some of these guarantees,” Zoley said.
Immigrant advocates have long argued that these deals are good for the private detention industry — and bad for immigrant communities and taxpayers.
In 2017, Congress agreed to drop a requirement that ICE maintain a minimum number of detention beds. Then President Trump ramped up his immigration crackdown — and ICE continued to write guaranteed minimums into its contracts anyway.
Now activists see a new opportunity with President Biden in the White House.
During the campaign, Biden’s platform said that the federal government “should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.” And when he took office, the president moved to phase out privately run federal prisons within the Justice Department.
But so far, he has not moved to address immigration detention.