December 09, 2019
Read full report here.
The detention of immigrants has skyrocketed in the United States.
On a given day in August 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) held over 55,000 people in detention – a massive increase from five years ago when ICE held fewer than 30,000 people. Unsurprisingly, the United States has the largest immigration incarceration system in the world. What’s more, the federal government spends more on immigration enforcement than for all principal federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.
As of April 2019, Florida had the sixth-largest population of people detained by ICE in the United States, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. On a daily basis, ICE currently detains more than 2,000 noncitizens in the state, mostly in South Florida, which is home to four immigration prisons: Krome Service Processing Center (Krome), owned by ICE; Broward Transitional Center (Broward), operated by GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based for-profit prison corporation; and two county jails, Glades County Detention Center (Glades) and Monroe County Detention Center (Monroe).
Despite the fact that immigrants are detained on civil violations, their detention is indistinguishable from the conditions found in jails or prisons where people are serving criminal sentences. The nation’s immigration detention centers are little more than immigrant prisons, where detained people endure harsh – even dangerous – conditions. And reports of recent deaths have only heightened concerns.
In 2018, for example, two deaths were reported by ICE at South Florida detention facilities. Luis Marcano, a 59-year-old man, died despite complaining of abdominal pain after a little over a month at Krome. Wilfredo Padron, a 58-year-old man with hypertension and pancreatitis, died after 2 ½ months at Monroe.
In an effort to better understand the experiences of detained individuals in South Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans for Immigrant Justice examined immigrant detention at these four facilities. The organizations toured the immigrant prisons, requested public records, and interviewed at least 5 percent of the people held at each facility.
Our investigation found that the problems in South Florida facilities reflect what is happening in immigrant detention nationally – substandard conditions, such as inadequate medical and mental health care, lack of accommodations for and discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and overuse of solitary confinement.
At Krome, a detained person with HIV said he had yet to see a doctor after four months at the facility. The same person was later diagnosed with hepatitis A, which he believes he contracted from eating unwashed food served at the facility. “I’m just trying to stay alive,” he said of his situation.
At Monroe, a detained person described checking a friend’s cell, only to discover he was dead. The death occurred after his friend, who used a wheelchair and had a history of strokes, was denied a request to go to the sick bay. The detained person who made the grim discovery also recounted how most of his days at the facility are spent locked inside a two-man cell.
At Glades, a detained woman reported being diagnosed with uterine cancer but said ICE failed to schedule a follow-up appointment for almost a month. The doctor even told her that it was unlikely ICE would pay for her treatment. “I’ll probably be deported before getting any type of [cancer] treatment,” she said.
A gay man detained at Broward described enduring vicious and relentless anti-gay harassment that pushed him to attempt suicide. “I don’t know what’s worse, this or death,” he said.
It is inexcusable that detained people must endure such conditions, but just as the U.S. criminal justice system witnessed the ascent of for-profit prisons and an explosion in the prison population that has only begun to diminish with sentencing reforms enacted in many states, immigration prisons are the new cash cow for the incarceration industry.
For decades, immigrant detention was a fraction of what it is today. The boom in incarcerating immigrants is driven in part by the private prison companies that detain the majority of noncitizens in the country. Localities contract with ICE to hold noncitizens – currently at an average daily rate of $280 per person. Some facilities, such as Glades, do the job for $81 a day or even less. This has encouraged a sprawling network of immigrant prisons.
These facilities are governed by various detention condition standards, and ICE fails to effectively enforce this patchwork of standards. This means that individuals in immigrant detention are often held in dehumanizing conditions that amount to harsh punishment while waiting for their immigration cases to be heard.
The Trump administration’s extreme anti-immigrant policies have only bolstered this system – perhaps best exemplified by two major private prison companies seeing their stock prices virtually double four months after Donald Trump’s election. Before the election, the Department of Homeland Security was considering moving away from using private prison companies altogether.
The people held in these facilities include an increasingly broad swath of noncitizens, as ICE has adopted a zero-tolerance policy that ignores circumstances such as long-time U.S. residence, serious health issues, and family connections to the United States in deciding who to detain. In ICE’s own words from a 2018 Department of Homeland Security report: “There is no category of [unauthorized immigrant] exempt from immigration enforcement.”
The policy shift is especially evident in Florida, where arrests of unauthorized immigrants without criminal records are seven times the number of such arrests in the previous administration and more than twice the national average, according to a 2019 review by the Tampa Bay Times.
Despite treatment that is inarguably punitive, people held in immigrant prisons are considered to be in civil proceedings and do not receive a lawyer at government expense. This means many detained people don’t have an advocate when they encounter these conditions.
South Florida, which is home to a large immigrant population that has enriched the region’s culture, is a significant state within our nation’s immigrant prison network. The failures at the four facilities examined in this report highlight more than a local problem. South Florida is indicative of failures throughout the nation’s bloated immigrant prison system – failures that can only be corrected by turning to more cost-effective and humane alternatives to incarceration, shrinking the number of people detained, and strictly enforcing constitutional standards to protect the lives of the people locked away within this system.
More detailed recommendations are offered at the end of this report.