The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the Biden administration to close dozens of immigration detention facilities across the country, citing the historically low number of immigrants in detention and the high cost of paying for empty beds.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the ACLU calls for the closure of 39 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
The agency oversees a nationwide detention network of more than 200 facilities. The ACLU targeted some of them for downsizing because of allegations of detainee abuse at those facilities, limited access to lawyers and medical care, or inadequate justification for opening them.
As NPR reported earlier this month, ICE pays more than $1 million a day for empty detention beds. The ACLU argues that "enormous taxpayer expense" is a waste, and that the money could be better spent on alternatives to detention or other priorities.
"As a matter of good governance, and particularly in light of the historically low number of people in ICE detention, it is time for ICE to dramatically downscale its network," wrote Ronald Newman, the ACLU's National Political Director, in the letter to DHS.
ICE has released hundreds of people to lower the risk of COVID-19, and is arresting and detaining fewer unauthorized immigrants under orders from President Biden.
As a result, the number of immigrants in detention has fallen to roughly 15,000 — the lowest number in decades — after peaking at more than 55,000 in 2019.
Still, ICE guarantees it will pay for a minimum number of beds — whether they are filled or not — under contracts with the private companies and localities that own and operate the detention centers.
When asked about the ACLU's demands, an ICE spokesperson said the agency is "reviewing its detention policies and space requirements and exploring options that will afford the agency the operational flexibility needed."
In an earlier statement to NPR, ICE said that predicting how many immigrants will be detained is a "complex challenge" and that it's a mistake to draw conclusions about its contracting process during a pandemic that has forced the agency to release detainees from custody in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.
ICE also defended the use of guaranteed minimums, saying the agency agrees to pay them in order to negotiate a lower rate per detainee.
With Biden preparing to give his first address to Congress on Wednesday night, immigrant advocates are pressing the president to follow through on his top campaign pledges now that he's been in office for 100 days.
During the campaign, Biden's platform said that the federal government "should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants."
As president, Biden has moved to phase out privately run federal prisons within the Justice Department. But so far, he has not addressed immigration detention.
Immigrant advocates say this isn't just about money, but also about the morality of putting immigrants behind bars for civil violations. Many ICE detainees have not been convicted of any crimes.
The Trump administration dramatically expanded ICE's network of private detention centers. But the political winds have shifted, and the ACLU argues that the low detention numbers present a "unique opportunity" for the Biden administration to shutter facilities.
Meanwhile, privately run immigrant jails are facing mounting public opposition, with state legislatures in California, Washington and elsewhere moving to shut them down.
Some local municipalities are also breaking their longstanding ties with ICE. Essex County, N.J., announced Wednesday that it will end its lucrative but controversial contract with the agency, following a similar decision by Howard County in Maryland earlier this year.