Citing $1 million a day of wasted federal dollars, the American Civil Liberties Union called on President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday to close 39 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities across the U.S., including the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral.
The federal government has been paying for the empty bed spaces at these facilities, almost all run by privately-owned companies, which the ACLU called “wasting” taxpayer money.
The ACLU established a criteria for the 39 facilities it is calling on the federal government to close. In its statement, issued Wednesday, the ACLU said that Otero County Processing Center (OCPC) was included because of its “extensive record of civil rights violations and inhumane treatment.”
The letter, sent to The Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, urged the secretary to announce his intention to close ICE detention facilities across the country.
“With lower ICE arrest rates and already reduced levels of detention arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE is currently paying to maintain thousands of empty beds at enormous taxpayer expense—wasting hundreds of millions of dollars that would be better spent on alternatives to detention and other programmatic priorities,” the letter states.
Nayomi Valdez, ACLU-NM public policy director, said OCPC has had empty beds which federal tax dollars are paying for. But the main reason the ACLU included OCPC was because of a reported lack of access to medical care and a reported overuse of solitary confinement.
The lack of medical care includes both a lack of available medicine but also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been concerns about a lack of testing and a reported unwillingness to test detainees, Valdez said.
“The only reason they ended up doing such robust testing is because the state stepped in and started providing them with tests and resources at the state’s expense,” she told NM Political Report.
Valdez said there have been other issues such as detainees reportedly not always having access to a phone to talk to legal counsel or other advocates, which Valdez called “a pretty serious issue.”
She said there have also been reports of the overuse of solitary confinement.
“These people are not being punished. They are seeking something it is their legal right to pursue, which is asylum, and there are alternatives to detaining them,” Valdez said.
The ACLU’s statement on Wednesday said it used three criteria it used for calling for the closure of certain ICE detention centers. One of those included ICE opening facilities in violation of its own process for obtaining new detention space, according to a Government Accountability Office (GOA) report.
The report found that ICE spent $20.5 million in May 2020 for over 12,000 unused beds a day on average.
Valdez said that last year, around 15,000 people a day, on average were detained in an ICE facility. She said that is a quarter of ICE detention, on average, at its peak in 2019.
“That’s a lot of empty bed space. It’s a great opportunity for the Biden administration to come out strong and repair asylum and providing alternatives to this is an integral part of that reparation,” Valdez said.
“These are our tax dollars,” she said. “And it creates an incentive to detain people.”
The ACLU also considered facilities located in remote areas with compromised access to legal counsel and external medical care as another reason why the 39 facilities on the list should be closed.
The other two ICE detention facilities in New Mexico, Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan and Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia were not on the list.
According to the ACLU’s statement, ICE detention facilities across the country saw reports of increased use of force, solitary confinement, patterns of sexual abuse, forced sterilization and a failure to protect people housed inside from COVID-19.
“ICE’s extreme recklessness in handling the COVID-19 virus showed the blatant disregard it had for the health and well being of detained people, as well as the extent to which it was willing to lie or obfuscate to avoid accountability,” the statement said.
Otero County Attorney Michael Eshleman did not respond to a request for comment on the ACLU’s call for closure but he did answer questions by email about the county’s financial dependence on the facility.
Eshleman said the county owns the facility and issued bonds in 2007. The outstanding balance on that bond is $32,875,000.
The final payment on the bonds isn’t scheduled to be made until April 1, 2028. Currently, the county is in contract with Management and Training Corporation (MTC) to operate the center. The county’s contract with MTC will automatically renew in June 2021 for a final two-year term.
“The only source of funding for the payment of principal and interest is the revenue from the operation of the processing center,” Eshleman told NM Political Report by email.
Valdez said despite the county’s contract with MTC, the Biden administration has the authority to close the facility.
“It’s just not the responsibility of the federal government to foot the bill on the backs of asylum seekers. We definitely sympathize with the financial situation but this is an issue of morality and legality,” she said.
Paige Hughes, a spokesperson for ICE, sent an email with the following response:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Pursuant to the January 20, 2021 memorandum on civil immigration enforcement and removal policies and priorities by Acting Secretary David Pekoske, ICE is reviewing its detention policies and space requirements and exploring options that will afford the agency the operational flexibility needed.”
Valdez said the people ICE detains are “not criminals.”
“They are asylum seekers facing incredibly destitute circumstances and violence,” she said, adding that under current federal policy, they are held “in very prison like conditions.”
“They are not provided adequate care,” she said.
The facilities the ACLU included are as follows:
- Etowah County Jail, Alabama
- Eloy Detention Center, Arizona
- La Palma Correctional Center, Arizona
- Adelanto Detention Center, California
- Desert View Annex, California
- Imperial Regional Detention Facility, California
- Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility, California
- Otay Mesa Detention Center, California
- Yuba County Jail, California
- Baker’s County Sheriff’s Office, Florida
- Glades County Detention Center, Florida
- Krome North Service Processing Center, Florida
- Irwin County Detention Center, Georgia
- Stewart County Detention Center, Georgia
- Allen Parish Public Safety Complex, Louisiana
- Catahoula Correctional Center, Louisiana
- Jackson Parish Correctional Center, Louisiana
- LaSalle ICE Processing Center, Louisiana
- Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, Louisiana
- Richwood Correctional Center, Louisiana
- River Correctional Center, Louisiana
- South Louisiana Correctional Center, Louisiana
- Winn Correctional Center, Louisiana
- Bristol County House of Corrections, Massachusetts
- Calhoun County Correctional Facility, Michigan
- Adams County Detention Facility, Mississippi
- The Shelburne County Jail, Minnesota
- Otero County Processing Center, New Mexico
- Okmulgee County Jail, Oklahoma
- Clinton County Correctional Facility, Pennsylvania
- Pike County Correctional Facility, Pennsylvania
- York County Prison, Pennsylvania
- Bluebonnet Detention Facility, Texas
- El Valle Detention Center, Texas
- T. Don Hutto Residential Center, Texas
- IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility, Texas
- Montgomery ICE Processing Center, Texas
- Prairieland Detention Facility, Texas
- Farmville Detention Center, Virginia