In the southern region of Texas, immigration and customs agents have been busy.
The detention of people suspected of being in the country illegally has soared, increasing over 60 percent in the first two months of this year (compared to last year). That means there is a greater need for places to house the detainees. And one big new detention center is slated for construction, just north of Houston, in Conroe.
But at the same time, the Trump administration is relaxing oversight for those types of facilities . I looked into this and, not surprisingly, found concern over the prospect of more detention facilities but less oversight.
Carl Takei is a staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. He says the Conroe contract is the first step in the Trump administration’s massive detention expansion.
“What’s particularly frightening, right now, is that the Trump administration is poised to begin a major expansion of immigration detention, while destroying many of the oversight mechanisms that the Obama administration created,” he says.
In fact, the Obama administration ramped up deportations, to a level greater than any other previous administration. Human rights groups even raised concerns about how detainees might be cared for. And while the Obama administration tried to make improvements, some critics said it wasn’t enough.
The ACLU’s Takei fears what will happen now.
“There’s an important difference between making an effort to enforce detention standards, and move toward greater oversight, and doing away with that entirely,” Takei says.
Right now, the number of detention beds nationwide is around 34,000. Takei says that number could even double under the Trump administration. In the Houston area, there are a couple thousand beds spread among three detention facilities. The new Conroe facility would add one thousand more beds.
The contract for it was awarded to a private prison company, called The GEO Group; which already operates another ICE detention facility in Conroe. The Florida-based company runs both private prisons and immigration detention centers across the country.
In an email, The GEO Group said it takes good care of detainees, saying, “Our facilities have a longstanding record providing high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe, secure, and humane environments that meet the non-penal, non-punitive needs of the residents in the custody and care of federal immigration authorities.”
On an investor call earlier this month, GEO Group executive David Donahue alluded to how President Trump’s policies could affect their business.
“The new administration has implemented a number of new policy directives…. These changes may lead to an increase in apprehensions and detentions in the future,” he reported.
Another executive, David Venturella, told investors that the demand for their beds could increase.
“What we see is ICE beginning to implement their interior enforcement strategy. For the past 8 to 10 years, the focus has been on the border…. So we’ll start to see the benefits of that through increased apprehensions, and increased detentions, in the interior part of the United States,” he said.
They said the new Conroe detention center will produce $44 million in annual revenue, and provide over 300 new jobs to the city.
ACLU Attorney George Takei says he was listening in on to the call.
“It was clear they are very excited about making a lot of money from new immigration detention contracts…. They were on the defensive with the Obama administration,” he says.
“On the defensive” because in the last months of the Obama administration, the Justice Department said it wanted to reduce (and eventually phase out) having private companies house federal prisoners. That policy has since been reversed by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
In the email, the GEO Group said it wouldn’t comment on the Trump administration’s new policies, saying, “As a matter of long-standing policy, our company does not take a position on, advocate for or against, or comment on immigration detention policies. Our company has operated federal detention facilities around the country for three decades under both Democratic and Republican Presidential Administrations.”
President Trump’s 2018 budget proposes an additional $1.5 billion for the expanded detention, transportation, and removal of illegal immigrants.