As the Trump administration cracks down on illegal immigration, the federal government is making plans for a new privately run detention center along Interstate 35 in South Texas, adding 1,000 beds to what is already the world’s largest immigrant detention system.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month asked private companies to submit preliminary proposals for a new facility housing adult male and female detainees between San Antonio and Laredo, where there are already seven detention centers.
Although arrests of unauthorized immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have declined sharply since President Donald Trump’s election, arrests from interior enforcement efforts are on the rise.
Trump’s promised expansion of the detention system represents a boon to the private prison industry, which is dominated by two companies, CCA and the GEO Group, and portends a continued focus on interior actions such as the ICE raids in Austin in February that sparked controversy because more than half of the 53 immigrants arrested had no criminal history.
“This would be yet another for-profit detention center in South Texas along the I-35 corridor, which has become detention alley,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which opposes private prisons.
“What Trump promised was the very high deportation numbers, and the way you get that is through the detention and deportation of asylum seekers” at the border, Libal said, “but if that number remains constant or goes down, you have to find new populations to deport.”
The result, Libal said, is likely to be more ICE raids in immigrant communities, “the stuff that is really terrifying, really dystopic.”
ICE said it cannot comment on pending contract issues.
Supporters of Trump’s handling of illegal immigration are applauding the expansion in the detention system, saying it is necessary to fix a broken system that often let unauthorized immigrants go free while awaiting proceedings.
“It’s clear that ICE is going to be needing more detention capacity because they’re trying to manage the problems in the asylum system, they have ended the Obama policy of catch-and-release, they’re going to be using more expedited removal, and for all of those changes in policy, they’re going to be needing more detention capacity,” said Jessica Vaughan, director for policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration enforcement.
Clustering detention centers near the border in Texas makes sense, Vaughan said, because it allows ICE to save money on costs that can be shared among the facilities and makes it easier to deport detainees to Mexico and other Latin American countries.
The contracting notice the agency issued in late September, known as a request for information, is a preliminary step before a formal bid solicitation is issued. The notice was first reported by Reveal, a publication of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
ICE asked federal contractors to propose locations in Webb, La Salle, Frio, Medina and Atascosa counties. The agency said it is open to new construction projects or renovations of existing facilities. It would prefer that the detention center be exclusively dedicated to ICE detainees but is open to housing within an existing lockup.
Some detention centers are federally owned facilities, while others are governed by contracts between ICE and local governments, with the private company being paid with federal money to manage a facility that is owned by a city or county.
CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they are pursuing the contract or where they are proposing the new facility be built.
La Salle County will not participate in any proposals, County Judge Joel Rodriguez said. Hosting a detention center can help a community’s economy by providing jobs, Rodriguez said, but there are serious risks.
He would know. The La Salle County sheriff’s office now runs a detention center in Encinal after the Louisiana-based company Emerald Corrections walked away from it in 2014, leaving officials at the county of 7,600 on the hook to meet the demands of the federal contract they had signed with ICE.
“The thing is that many of these facilities, the private companies say, ‘Hey, this is the best thing for you,’ but the contracts don’t look at the impact to infrastructure and so many things,” Rodriguez said. “The intentions are well, but you end up with bad decisions, poor decisions, because you want the jobs.”
Officials for Frio and Webb counties did not respond to interview requests.
Crossings down, arrests up
U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions, considered the best measure of how many unauthorized immigrants are crossing the border, plummeted after the November election, a phenomenon known as the “Trump effect.” Since April, they have begun to increase again but remain below 2016 levels.
About 487,000 immigrants were arrested at the border in the first 11 months of the 2017 fiscal year — from Oct. 1, 2016, to Aug. 31 — compared with about 690,000 during the entire previous fiscal year, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
Interior arrests by ICE, meanwhile, are up more than 40 percent during the first nine months of the Trump administration compared with the same period in 2016, according to ICE.
Deportations, however, are on pace to slightly decrease this year, reflecting an enormous and growing backlog of 632,000 pending cases in the immigration court system and causing longer stays for immigrants in detention centers awaiting proceedings.
With one month to go in the fiscal year, the United States had deported about 211,000 immigrants in 2017, compared with 240,000 in all of 2016.
The combination of more arrests and fewer deportations could mean an increase in the populations of detention centers. ICE did not respond to a request for information on the number of detainees housed in South Texas detention centers.