NATIONAL VIEW: Biden promised to end the disgrace of private migrant prisons

THE POINT: He still hasn’t.

The Trump administration was great for business — if your business happened to be running private detention centers for migrants. Although deportations under the previous president were more sluggish than he might have liked, the number of asylum seekers who languished in for-profit prisons soared before the pandemic.

Over Donald Trump’s four years in office, his administration oversaw the establishment of more than 40 new migrant detention centers. President Biden ran on a pledge to close them, but his administration’s confused messaging on migration and the border overtook that hopeful campaign promise. A surge of unauthorized border-crossers, apprehended by U.S. border agents, has forced the administration into a defensive crouch on immigration.

More than 20,000 migrants are now in detention; that’s thousands more than Mr. Biden inherited on taking office, although the number has fallen in recent months as border-crossing has eased. Many of the detainees are in the private facilities he had hoped to shutter. Most were detained along the U.S.-Mexican frontier, where U.S. border agents have had their hands full with a record number of unauthorized border-crossers over the past year. Relatively few were picked up in the interior, a fact that reflects the administration’s distaste for “sweeps” that target migrants who have been in the country for years.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that relatively few of those in migrant detention centers have committed crimes or present a threat to society; three-quarters of them have no criminal record. They are held on civil violations of immigration law, typically pending hearings on their asylum applications.

Most should be released as their asylum cases are adjudicated, as is the case for about 165,000 migrants in a government program called Alternatives to Detention, which monitors them using various means, including a smartphone app. To its credit, the Biden administration has nearly doubled the number of migrants enrolled and reportedly plans to further expand the program.

One problem with warehousing growing numbers of migrants is that many of the facilities holding them have a track record of woeful conditions. Poor medical treatment, which preexisted the pandemic, has fueled an explosion of covid-19 cases behind bars, which has intensified with the omicron variant. Those outbreaks sickened not only tens of thousands of migrants but also the guards and staff who monitored them, along with surrounding communities, often in rural areas.

Mr. Biden correctly believed that privately run migrant detention centers, overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, should be shut down — he said so clearly as a candidate for president. Soon after taking office, he signed an executive order to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates, but stopped short of fulfilling his promise to do so in the case of migrant detainees.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has also expressed concern about problems at privately run detention facilities, has closed down two of them where abuses were reported. He is pressing for further moves, according to DHS officials.

The administration’s weak-kneed wavering on fulfilling the president’s promise is unacceptable. The least it can do is insist on decent conditions and health care for the migrants incarcerated in private facilities. That’s not a big ask; it’s a minimal expectation in a civilized society.

The Washington Post