Where Cities Help Detain Immigrants

Via City Lab | Tanvi Misra

Contracts that rent local beds to ICE for immigrant detention are spread out across the country—including in liberal counties.

Taylor, Texas, is a suburb around 30 miles northeast of Austin that boasts its history as a railroad hub and small-town authenticity. In 2016, more than half of Williamson County—where Taylor is seated—voted for Donald Trump. But recently, county officials decided not to help the president in his push to expand the detention of unauthorized migrants, including those seeking asylum.

On June 26, in a regularly planned county court meeting, the future of Taylor’s T. Don Hutto detention center was first on the agenda. A county contractwith U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires it to oversee the 500-bed facility exclusively for migrant women—in return for $8,000 per month and $1 daily for each detainee housed. Before the item was put to vote, Commissioner Terry Cook, the only Democrat on the Williamson County Court, made a passionate statement.

“If the court does vote to terminate the contract, and I hope they do, no one should be celebrate or take credit for this termination. This does not solve that larger issue,” she said to the audience, some of whom were holding up anti-Hutto signs. “But it does allow us to go back and perform core county functions of health, roads, safety, and all those other items that we are tasked with doing in Williamson County, and every other county in the nation.”

When she finished, the council voted 4-1 to terminate the agreement, a decision that was greeted with a sharp eruption of claps and “woo-hoos.”

It’s not just Williamson County, though. In the last few weeks, a handful of localities have taken action to end contracts with federal immigration authorities to jail immigrants, as anti-detention activists have long been pushing them to do, including Springfield, Oregon, and Sacramento, California. Even Atlanta, Georgia, is considering it. The Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant families at the border, now suspended, has left localities scrambling to understand what role they play. And in some places, the crisis appears to have triggered a moral reckoning about the ways local governments participate in immigrant detention.

For those who are troubled by these relationships, take note: There are around 850 contracts between local and federal authorities to detain immigrants in 669 counties, according to ICE data from November 2017.* Some of these facilities are primarily for immigrants. Many are local jails or county prisons that rent out beds to federal authorities for immigrant detention. The majority of places where these contracts have sprung up voted for Trump in 2016, but there are several diverse, Democrat-leaning counties that have signed up to jail large numbers of immigrants, too. Some are even considered “sanctuary cities” because they limit police cooperation with ICE.

Here’s what those relationships look like.

Where have local governments contracted with the feds?


CityLab and location intelligence company ESRI have mapped all the contracts local governments have with ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service (called intergovernmental service agreements) that can be used to detain immigrants, based on the most comprehensive datasetavailable. (Click through for the full-screen version.) Immigrants’ rights groups obtained this data, which goes up to November 2017, through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. The blue dots in the map above are facilities like local jails, operated by the city or county; the green dots are facilities that might be owned or overseen by local governments, but are operated by private prison companies. The size of the dot corresponds with the average daily population in November 2017 at that facility, wherever that information was available.

Clicking on a facility on the map above reveals details of its usage, contract terms (like the money it’s earning per day to take in immigrants), and results of its last government inspection, which determines whether or not it is “authorized” for use. Not all of the facilities on the map are “online”—meaning, either they’re not authorized, or not readily being used to detain immigrants right now. But as long as they have live contracts, the federal government can hypothetically utilize them within a short time frame. Some of these contracts were first used back in the 1980s, and many others have come up under both Republican and Democrat administrations; both parties played a role in developing the current immigrant detention system.

There were around 110 publicly operated facilities actively taking in immigrants in November 2017, per this data. The ones with the highest average daily populations: York County Prison in Pennsylvania, Essex County Correctional Facility and Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, Theo Lacy Facility in California, Glades County Detention Center in Florida, and Etowah County Jail in Alabama.

What is the oversight of these facilities?

To be “authorized,” a facility needs to have passed the requisite number of inspections. But when the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) analyzed this dataset, it found that even facilities where multiple people had died—some as “a result of medical neglect”—had been passing inspections since 2012. A report released in June 2018 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found other reasons to question the rigor of government oversight. It concluded that the inspections of ICE detention facilities were too infrequent and too broad. The particular type of inspection the government conducts at the local facilities with which it has contracts were “useless,” according to ICE employees interviewed by the OIG. They were “very, very, very difficult to fail,” the ICE employees said in the report.

“This report confirms what the people behind bars in immigration jails already know: Migrants in detention suffer abuses, rights deprivations, and neglect, and ICE has no interest in investigating or remedying these harms,” said Heidi Altman, NIJC’s director of policy in a statement about the OIG report. NIJC’s analysis of ICE’s dataset also revealed that in November 2017, the agency was detaining roughly 98 people a day in jails listed as “not inspected.”


ICE responded by saying in an email to CityLab that its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division “has already initiated several steps to bolster” the quality of inspections at contract facilities and “will re-evaluate the existing inspection scope and methodology” for annual and biennial inspections.

What kinds of places sign up for these contracts?

The second map below allows a more detailed look. Toggling the firstcheck box allows a “cluster” view, where the bigger circles signal a larger concentration of contracts. Toggling the second check box for “point locations” and one of the last four options on the right of the map pulls up the locations of these contracts against base maps showing the political, economic, and demographic characteristics of the counties. (This map below doesn’t work well on all mobile devices, so click through here for a full-screen version.)


Around 71 percent of these counties voted for Trump; in 73 percent, the white population was overrepresented (greater than the 60.3 percent national share per ESRI’s 2018 data); and in 66.5 percent, the median household income was below the national threshold based on ESRI’s data.

Detention contracts are not, however, a partisan practice: Some immigrant-rich, Democrat-leaning counties help detain very large numbers of immigrants. Among the top ten Democrat-voting jurisdictions within immigrant-friendly states with the highest numbers of detained immigrants: Orange and San Bernardino counties in California and Prince Edward County in Virginia. (Orange County voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is among California counties pushing back against the state’s “sanctuary law.”) The list also includes Essex, Hudson, and Bergen counties in New Jersey, where the new governor campaigned on the promise of following California’s lead and enacting “sanctuary” legislation—limiting the cooperation of localities with federal immigration authorities. [Update: An investigation by WNYC finds that ICE’s payments to these three jurisdictions for immigrant detention increased by 46 percent between 2015 and 2018.]

“What the map does is highlight the entrepreneurial nature of detention,” writes Daniel Stageman, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York via email. “These facilities thrive on the borders where immigrant populations meet the political and economic conditions that make detention ‘markets’ profitable: voter support, a willing or eager (primarily white) labor force, the right infrastructure, etc.”

Does the cost-benefit tally add up for local jails?

With its push to round up undocumented immigrants in the interior of the country, the Trump administration appears to have increased its reliance on its existing agreements with local governments. The federal government has been securing thousands of new beds, including in locally-run facilities, according to the Washington Postand the demand for more is only expected to increase as the government doubles down on the waves of asylum seekers at the border.

“We’re seeing these contracts come online in some places that you really don’t think of as having large immigrant populations,” says Sharita Gruberg, an immigration law and policy expert at the Center for American Progress.

Why? It typically costs the federal government less to house immigrants in these types of facilities than in private detention centers, and unlike private detention centers that have to be built from scratch, this infrastructure already exists. Plus, these contracts can be coupled with other types of collaborations to strengthen the local crackdown on undocumented immigrants. In various counties in Texas, for example, 287(g) agreements through which jail officers can be deputized as ICE agents are being sought in conjunction with jail contracts—incentivizing local governments to create their own pipelines for deportation, critics say. According to The New York Times, the administration has also been planning to lower standardsrequired for local jail facilities to detain immigrants, so they can be available more quickly. That would mean even less stringent medical and language requirements, among other changes.

The conditions at these facilities are by no means up to scratch right now. Margo Schlanger, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, testified to the Homeland Security Advisory Council on immigrant detention in 2016 that chaotic local jails are even less equipped to deal with immigration populations than even the “prison-like” dedicated private detention centers. Many of the ones housing immigrants are in remote areas—far from legal counsel and medical amenities.

Medical negligence, abuse, and maltreatment of immigrant detainees is already well-documented in county jails. An OIG report from 2017found that detainees in some jails were strip-searched, inappropriately segregated, and kept in unhealthy conditions. Another from the same year found that detainees were fed soiled food. A Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report from 2016 found cases of brutal assaults, denial of due process, and gross medical negligence. Freedom For Immigrants recently released a study documenting complaints about immigrants being called “dogs” and “baboons,” and told to “go fetch” their food. In extreme cases, detention at these types of facilities has been fatal: Most recently, a Honduran man who was separated from his wife and 3-year-old at the border killed himself in the Starr County Sheriff’s office.

“When a bona fide asylum seeker who’s fleeing violence and recent trauma arrives at the United States, expresses the fear of return and then is transferred to a county jail, it’s very disorienting,” Altman told CityLab. “It’s traumatizing.”

From the perspective of the local government, renting out empty jail beds to federal authorities can still be appealing. Politically, it can feed into the tough-on-crime stance, if that is what the voters are looking for. But often the biggest sell is the economic value: These contracts are presented as revenue generators, even in places that are immigrant-friendly.

“The [immigrant] jail becomes a job-creation program that’s not being funded by taxpayers in the county or even in your state, but rather by the federal government,” says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an expert in immigration and criminal law at the University of Denver. “It becomes free money.”

But hidden economic costs can arise. When abuses are discovered, the county may face lawsuits, or the federal authorities may be pressured to dissolve the contract altogether. The fear of that economic risk and the moral case against these contracts seems to have convinced the officials in Williamson County.

“With commissioners, we used a lot of messaging around liability, the fact that they weren’t receiving proper information about incidents from ICE and CoreCivic, economic messaging around being perceived as a prison town, as well as speaking to family and Christian values,” said Bethany Carson, from Grassroots Leadership, an anti-detention advocacy group. “Some combination of those did it.”

Other local governments, however, have proven much more resistant to anti-detention messages. Willacy County, Texas, for example, had contracted with private company MT&C and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house non-citizen inmates in the past. This prison had such a bad reputation that it came to be known as “Ritmo,” Raymondville city’s very own “Gitmo.” In 2015, riots broke out and the prison shut down. The county was riddled with debt as a result and sued MT&C. Now, the Texas Observer reports that the county is re-entering into an agreement with ICE and the same private company to rent out bed space for immigrants in civil detention. The mayor of Raymondville, Gilbert Gonzalez, is hopeful that this new deal will bring the “best-paid jobs in [the] area,” he told The Observer’s . And while he opposes family separation, he is not against immigrant detention overall.

“People were getting put in facilities like this one under Bush and Obama, too,” he told The Observer. “It’s not really my place to take sides on that.”

The Democratic sheriff of Albany, New York, which considers itself a “sanctuary city,” also recently signed up to let ICE house immigrantsin his half-empty county jail for $119 per person per day. His argument: the facility will provide free legal counsel, international calls—and therefore will be more humane than elsewhere in the country. But some immigration experts question whether even this argument can be morally justified.

“The idea that immigrant detention can be ‘just business’ overlooks the fact that it is a fundamentally unjust business,” Stageman says, “one that, by its very nature, profits off of human suffering.”

*Methodology note: The maps are based on ICE’s record-keeping, which may not be comprehensive. They do not show privately owned facilities, and also do not include facilities listed in the dataset for which the ownership and operations information was missing—so some local governments, like Lubbock County, Texas, that have signed up for these contracts are not shown. Some of the contacts depicted may have ended or been terminated since November 2017. We have requested information for 2018 and will update the maps when we receive it.

If you have information about your local government’s detention contract with ICE, drop us a line at tmisra@theatlantic.com.

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