September 14, 2020

During pandemic, a privately run detention center sought to find new migrants to detain

A private detention center in southern New Mexico sought to increase the numbers of detainees within its facility after the state declared a public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Management and Training Company (MTC), which operates the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), sent a letter to Otero County Manager Pam Heltner dated March 31. The letter stated that due to an anticipated “significant decrease,” in migrant detainees, the company would terminate its agreement—but offered a solution.

NM Political Report received the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. The letter stated:

“MTC would be happy to explore with you the possibility of partnering with other state or federal agencies to co-locate detainees or inmates at the OCPC in order to increase the overall population at the facility and make MTC’s continued operation of the facility financially viable.”

MTC houses migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The private company also operates Otero County Prison Facility, which holds inmates detained by the U.S. Marshals Service and the state Department of Corrections. Both facilities are part of one large complex in Chaparral near Texas. 

Otero County’s revenue in the last fiscal year from MTC’s management of both Otero County Processing Center and the Otero County Prison Facility combined was $457,730, Heltner said in an email to NM Political Report

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency for COVID-19 and issued her first public health order requiring the public to stay at home to reduce the spread of the disease on March 11, two weeks before MTC sent its letter to Heltner.

Unless the county and MTC could “co-locate” more people to place in Otero County Processing Center, the letter said that MTC would end its contract with Otero County on September 27.

“We remain hopeful that the detainee population will increase or that alternatives can be pursued with ICE, Otero County or the bondholders to allow this notice to be rescinded so that MTC can continue to operate not only OCPF (Otero County Prison Facility), but also OCPC,” the letter states.

Despite the company’s offer, the county didn’t take action, according to Heltner. She told New Mexico Political Report in writing that “the facility has been in use the whole time.” 

Issa Arnita, managing director of corporate communications for MTC, said that the company signed a one-year contract with the county September 1.

He also said, of the letter, that MTC has “only ever worked with ICE in regards to the Otero County Processing Center.”

ICE spokesperson Timothy Oberle sent a response that stated that the population at the Otero County Processing Center has declined by 64 percent since early February.

“This decline in detained individuals has allowed for increased social distancing opportunities and enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus at the facility,” the statement reads.

Inside the facility

Arnita also said in his email that since the pandemic began, the population of the facility has decreased and, as of last Thursday, held 225 people. The facility can hold about 1,000 people. 

He didn’t directly respond to a question about how the facility is remaining profitable with so few beds filled but he echoed ICE’s statement that the fewer numbers of people held in detention at the facility means it can follow COVID-19 safe practices.

But Lujan Grisham reached out to Vice President Mike Pence over the summer because of her concerns about the outbreak at Otero County Processing Center and Otero County Prison Facility, she said during a press conference in July.

Joachim Marjon, an immigration attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, said detention centers holding people under ICE jurisdiction around the country experienced a general downsizing in late April or early May.

Marjon said ICE released some who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19. And, along with President Trump’s policies to keep migrants from crossing the border in the spring, ICE also conducted fewer raids to capture migrants who already live in the U.S. but lack proper documentation, Marjon said.

But Marjon said not enough testing has taken place among detainees, which “is likely minimizing the outbreak.” 

How the county responded

Although MTC’s letter to the county was dated March 31, the county first learned of its potential loss in revenue weeks before that, sometime in early March, Heltner said in writing. Otero County Commissioners held a special meeting on the same date as the letter—March 31—to vote on amending the county’s contract with MTC.

The three commissioners approved the amendment unanimously. The amendment contractually separated the Otero County Processing Center from the Otero County Prison Facility. Heltner explained during the meeting that the amendment would prevent a complete loss of revenue for the county if MTC closed the detention center because it would allow MTC to continue to run the prison facility. 

MTC has held a contract with Otero County to operate and manage the Otero County Processing Center since it was built in 2008, according to Heltner.  

How the Governor has responded

Lujan Grisham could do more to ensure that privately-run facilities holding prisoners and asylum-seeking detainees are testing and properly treating for COVID-19, according to legal experts and advocates for migrants.

Lujan Grisham, in response to a question from the Santa Fe Reporter during a July press conference, said that federal detention doesn’t have to abide by the state’s guidelines.

She is not alone in her position regarding such facilities. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam appealed to Trump over the summer for help with a migrant detention facility in his state that has seen a major outbreak of COVID-19 and at least one detainee dead. Northam and Virginia’s senate leadership said the state could not act because the detention facility was under federal contract, according to The Washington Post.

But, Marjon told NM Political Report that Lujan Grisham could mandate that the private prison industry in New Mexico adhere to COVID-19 best practices.

“ICE doesn’t run the (migrant detention) facilities. They are in ICE custody but it’s MTC or CoreCivic who run it. If you could regulate the restaurant industry, I don’t see why you can’t regulate private detentions,” Marjon said.

Lujan Grisham’s Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett said she would have to corroborate that with the state’s legal team.

But, Meyers Sackett added in an email that, “if there’s a way to use the state’s authority to enhance protections for federal detainees, certainly the state would pursue that.”

Dangerous conditions

Medical professionals tried to bring the plight of migrants held for administrative purposes in ICE custody to the attention of lawmakers as early as March. In a letter dated March 19 medical professionals with experience working in detention centers warned several members of Congress that the transfer of detainees would be dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“…the extensive transfer of individuals (who are often without symptoms) throughout the detention system, which occurs with great frequency in the immigration context, could rapidly disseminate the virus throughout the entire system with devastating consequences to public health,” the letter states.

The ICE statement to NM Political Report said that in March ICE convened a working group “to identify additional enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus.”

As a result of the working group, ICE has recommended that all facilities make efforts to reduce the population at detention facilities to 75 percent of capacity or less to allow for increased social distancing. Another target was established for 70 percent or less at the facilities, according to the emailed statement. 

But, Marjon said transfers never stopped at the ICE detention centers in New Mexico.

In addition, poor conditions at Otero County Processing Center have been documented in the past. Those conditions included filthy drinking water, inadequate food in terms of both quality and quantity and the retaliatory use of solitary confinement, were documented in a report by Freedom for Immigrants in 2018. 

Related: Questions on COVID-19 among migrant detainees

A 2017 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report on five ICE detention centers, including Otero County Processing Center, found multiple violations. Problems included non-working telephones and violations in segregating and locking down migrants in detention.

It may be worse

According to ICE, there are currently no known cases of COVID-19 at the Otero County Processing Center and 150 cases total since the pandemic began.

But to a group of researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice in Brooklyn, the numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 nationwide that ICE reports “didn’t look right,” said Dennis Kuo, Vera Institute senior data scientist. 

The Vera Institute researchers gathered public data from ICE and ran a simulation study and produced a report on it over the summer. They found that the numbers of potential COVID-19 cases in ICE detention centers could be more than ten times higher than ICE is reporting, Kuo said. 

“The key takeaway is the order of magnitude,” Kuo said. “We predict that over that 60-day period (from March 15 to May 15), 15 times the number of people would have gotten COVID-19. It’s really the order of magnitude you should pay attention to. It’s more than ten times what they (ICE) have reported.”

Kuo also said another take away from their report is that not only that the prevalence of COVID-19 in ICE detention is “likely pretty bad and much worse than ICE reported,” but that there is a significant lack of transparency on people being held in these facilities.

The ICE statement said that throughout the pandemic, ICE “has gone above and beyond to provide transparency regarding the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities.”

But a lack of transparency has been a concern among many legal experts, advocates and state officials throughout the pandemic.

“ICE needs to be more transparent. It would obviate the need to do this simulation work,” Kuo said.

Updated: Issa Arnita is male, not female.