President Trump is again demonstrating he doesn't need the cooperation of Congress to implement some of his core campaign promises, like securing America's borders. Case in point: Reuters reports today that US authorities are transferring roughly 1,600 ICE detainees to federal prisons over the objections of immigration advocates and human-rights groups. The move is the first large-scale use of federal prisons to crack down on people entering the country illegally. Meanwhile, immigrants rights advocates are furious because these same facilities typically house some of the justice system's most hardened criminals.
US Penitentiary in Victorville, Calif.
Five prisons will temporarily take in detainees who are awaiting civil immigration hearings - a group that could include asylum seekers - as ICE works on securing additional housing space. A prison in Victorville, Calif. will house 1,000 immigrants - the bulk of people being moved under the program. Other prisons include ones in Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Texas. The news comes after the Department of Homeland Security announced its contractors have started building the first section of Trump's planned border wall (among other features that make it superior to the rickety "fence" that had previously marked the border are special "anti-climbing plates" that make it difficult to scale).
Trump, of course, has promised to lock up people pending deportation, canceling President Obama's "catch and release" policy that allowed illegal immigrants without serious criminal records to roam free in the US. Others were housed in local jails, or other facilities.
Immigration advocates like Kevin Landy, a former ICE assistant director who helped run the agency under Obama, blasted the plan to "temporarily" use federal prisons as "highly unusual" adding that it raises "oversight concerns" - even though the immigrants are only expected to stay for about four months until ICE makes more space available.
"A large percent of ICE detainees have no criminal record and are more vulnerable in a prison setting – security staff and administrators at BOP facilities have spent their careers dealing with hardened criminals serving long sentences for serious felonies, and the procedures and staff training reflect that," he said. "This sudden mass transfer could result in some serious problems."
"Our federal prisons are set up to detain the worst of the worst. They should not be used for immigration purposes," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
"Federal prisons are for hardened criminals. They are not physically set up for immigrant landscapers looking for a job or fleeing violence," Noorani said.
Meanwhile, representatives of prison workers unions complained that they'd been given little time to prepare for the influx of new detainees. ICE data shows the average daily population of detainees in its facilities as of May 26 was 41,134, up from 38,106 in March 2017.
Officials of a prison employees’ union said the influx of ICE detainees, who were arrested at the border or elsewhere in the United States by immigration officials, raises questions about prison staffing and safety.
Union leaders at prisons in California, Texas and Washington state who spoke to Reuters said they had little time to prepare for the large intake of detainees.
At Victorville, the prison getting the largest number of people, workers are moving about 500 inmates in a medium-security facility to make space, said John Kostelnik, local president for the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals union.
"There is so much movement going on," said Kostelnik. "Everyone is running around like a chicken without their head."
After an initial "Trump lull" after the president defeated Hillary Clinton in an upset victory in November 2016, border crossings have surged again - presumably because immigrants are scrambling to get across before Trump builds the wall. ICE says it's "working to meet the demand for additional immigration detention space" as the surge overwhelms its current capacity.
"To meet this need, ICE is collaborating with the US Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, private detention facilities operators and local government agencies," she said. Nearly 51,000 people were arrested crossing the southern border in April 2018 - up from just 16,000 in April 2017. Also, as is often the case, if these detainees end up staying in these federal prisons for more than four months, it'll likely be the fault of Democrats - not Republicans - for holding up funding that would provide ICE with the resources it needs to house all of its detainees.