The number of immigrants detained by ICE has grown significantly under the Biden administration, including those who have passed their initial asylum screenings, according to an analysis of government data by BuzzFeed News.
The number of immigrants held in private prisons and local jails that sat partially empty during the pandemic has risen from 14,000 early this year to nearly 27,000 in June as key White House officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have publicly discouraged people from trying to cross the border. But within the administration, there is disagreement over whether ICE should be detaining people at the rate it has been.
The decision of what to do with immigrants who cross the border without authorization will also only grow more urgent as officials grapple with the predicted reversal of the Trump-era policy, Title 42, that allowed for immediate turnbacks of immigrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the US.
It’s a dilemma for an administration that must manage criticism from both advocates who want ICE to release more immigrants and Republicans and officials in border states who have complained about lax enforcement.
“They are in a difficult spot balancing both sides of the equation,” said John Sandweg, who led ICE during the Obama administration. “These numbers are going to skyrocket as long as the border activity stays up.”
Private and county jails contracted with ICE sat partially empty for much of 2020 as the pandemic forced the agency to cut the number of immigrants in custody for safety reasons and border agents turned back most people, but that has changed in recent weeks. While the Biden administration has significantly reduced the number of people who are arrested by ICE officers in the US and later detained, the flow of immigrants being transferred from Border Patrol custody has grown. Some private prisons have seen their populations quadruple.
The influx, according to two Homeland Security officials, can be partly attributed to more immigrants from countries like Cuba and Ecuador who have crossed the border and are then transferred to ICE custody after being detained. These immigrants, officials say, are more difficult to quickly remove from the country.
ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes said more than 80% of transferred detainees are originating from border arrests. Immigrants who cross the border without authorization after November are considered priorities under the Biden administration's enforcement guidelines.
The number of immigrants who have passed their initial asylum screenings, which allow them to make a case for asylum in the US, has also jumped from just over 1,700 in April to more than 4,000, making up about 15% of all detainees in custody.
One of those detainees, Mauricio, a 28-year-old from El Salvador, passed his initial asylum test in May after explaining to US authorities that he had been threatened by gang members in his home country and faced persecution for being gay. He has been held in a private detention center in Louisiana.
“This is incredibly difficult — I’m just really on the edge of collapse,” he told BuzzFeed News through a translator. “There’s been no changes in the system in favor of immigrants.”
ICE relies on private detention facilities to hold a large share of its detainees, despite President Biden’s campaign pledge to “make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.” The administration has since announced plans to no longer hold immigrants at one private jail in Georgia.
So far, the numbers are far below the peak ICE detention levels under former president Trump, which at one point was more than 55,000 immigrants. Elsewhere, US officials have made significant changes to how families are held by ICE. In February, officials began scaling down the number of families being held in two ICE detention centers in Texas and have instead been holding some of them in hotels in border states. The families are tested for COVID-19 and released after a certain period of time.
There has also been a downturn in the average time immigrants spend in ICE custody. Immigrants arrested by border agents and transferred into ICE custody now spend an average of 19 days in detention, down from more than 100 days last fall.
Sandweg, the former ICE director, said the reduction is proof that the administration is taking efforts to change the system seriously. Still, while some detention is necessary, he said there was “little sense” in detaining so many immigrants who had passed their initial asylum screenings.
In those screenings, immigrants must prove there is a significant chance that they have a valid fear of persecution or torture in their home country. It’s the first step in a long process to gain protections in the US, one that came under scrutiny during the Trump administration.
The decision to transfer so many people into ICE custody has been met with concern within the immigrant advocacy community, many of whom have met with ICE officials in recent weeks to press them on the matter.
“The Biden Administration came into office with the opportunity to remedy the injustice this system represents by ending contracts and investing in community support programs instead of detention. But six months in, the trend lines are going in the opposite direction,” said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “It’s retrogressive and it’s an offense to immigrant communities.”
At the same time, leaders of border states have increased pressure on the Biden administration in recent weeks. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who successfully blocked Biden’s plan to halt deportations for 100 days earlier this year, has pledged to arrest people who cross the border without authorization.
The higher detention rates have also coincided with an uptick in the overall number of immigrant detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier this year, the number of immigrants who had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic was around 9,000. As of this week, the number had ballooned to over 18,000.
On Monday, more than 800 ICE detainees were under monitoring after testing positive for the virus.
All of this has occurred as medical care for ICE detainees has come under increasing scrutiny. In September, the House Oversight Committee found that ICE detainees died after receiving inadequate care and that jail workers “falsified records to cover up” issues.
That same month, the House Homeland Security Committee released a report that found people detained by ICE are often given insufficient care, and that detention centers use segregation to threaten immigrants. The report was based on interviews, facility inspections, and tours of eight ICE detention centers.
The committee also found that the agency and its contractors frequently demonstrated an indifference to the mental and physical care of detainees. ICE has publicly insisted that the detention facilities it runs, as well as those that are operated by private, for-profit corporations, provide thorough and adequate medical care to all detainees.