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Will Biden officials renew ICE contract with GEO Group? It's not off the table

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 4/30/2021 Monique O. Madan and Alex Roarty, The Miami Herald
a palm tree in front of a building: The Broward Transitional Center, a detention center owned by Boca Raton- based Geo Group, in Pompano Beach, Florida, on June 25, 2018. © John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS The Broward Transitional Center, a detention center owned by Boca Raton- based Geo Group, in Pompano Beach, Florida, on June 25, 2018.

MIAMI — The Biden administration is in talks with private prison company GEO Group about possibly renewing a South Florida immigration detention center contract despite the president's past pledge to do away with private detention facilities and over the vehement objections of immigration advocates.

Department of Homeland Security officials held a closed-door meeting with the private prisons operator this week about continuing the contract while making certain modifications to improve public perception, like changing the color of some detainee uniforms, which are usually bright orange for those with a past or pending misdemeanor charge. Details on the talks were shared with the Miami Herald by two people involved in federal contracting and with direct knowledge of the situation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed the contract for the Broward Transitional Facility is "under negotiations for renewal" while GEO Group did not respond to a request for information. Government records show the group's contract to run the detention center— located in Pompano Beach— is currently up for grabs once it expires in July.

During the campaign, President Joe Biden promised to end the federal government's use of private prisons. Within a week of taking office, he issued an executive order instructing the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prisons, saying they did not "maintain the same levels of safety and security" as government-operated jails.

But the White House did not extend the order to include the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees private detention facilities for migrants. Officials said they would take direction on the issue from DHS. Because Broward's ICE contract is one of the nation's first to expire under Biden, it could potentially set a precedent for how the administration chooses to negotiate immigration detention contracts in the future.

The lack of any action on private detention centers for ICE detainees has upset some progressive advocates — including one man who cried out to Biden at an outdoor car rally Thursday.

"Close all the detention centers now, please!" the unidentified man yelled.

Biden's response: "I agree with you. I'm working on it, man! Give me another five days."

He continued: "There should be no private prisons, period. None. Period ... Private detention centers: They should not exist and we are working to close all of them."


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White House officials would not comment on Biden's remarks late Thursday.

Private detention facilities have housed a growing share of detained immigrants. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that in January of last year, 81% of ICE-held immigrants were kept in facilities either owned or managed by private corporations. That's an increase from roughly half of all detainees a decade earlier, the report found.

Immigration advocates say migrants shouldn't be detained in centers of any kind, arguing that either family members who live in the country or nonprofit groups can house them until their court date.

But if the government does detain them, they say private facilities — as opposed to those managed directly by the government — are less safe. They cite reports like one issued in June of 2019 from the DHS inspector general's office, which criticized some of the private facilities for inadequate medical care and unsafe conditions.

The animus runs so deeply that for some activists, even if the Biden administration were to change course and not renew the Broward contract, that wouldn't go far enough.

"If the facility is still there, what's to stop them from using it a few years down the road?" said Kathryn Hampton, a senior officer at the Asylum Program for the pro-immigrant group Physicians for Human Rights. "Without a real concerted effort to shut things down and change the system, I'm worried it seems like a good step, but it's a half-measure."

BTC first opened its doors in 2002 after being awarded an ICE contract to house level-one detainees— those considered noncriminal and low-security. The co-ed facility is often referred to as a "model" for immigrant detention centers, as its hotel layout allows for socialization during "out-of-cell" time. Unlike other facilities, there are no prison bars.

A 2019 documentary drew national attention to the detention center, highlighting reports of poor medical and mental health care as well as abuse of prosecutorial discretion. Anti-ICE detention protests often take place outside BTC or GEO Group's headquarters in South Florida.

In early March 2020, national immigration advocates filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit in Miami federal court seeking the release of detainees from BTC and two other detention centers in South Florida. In the complaint, detainees said their imprisonment violates their due process rights, creating an undue increased risk of severe illness or death by keeping them confined in close quarters during the pandemic.

As of Thursday, the Broward ICE detention center tallied the most COVID-19 cases among all federal immigration facilities in the state: 270, data shows. Federal records show that the facility's population is currently at an all-time low of 251 detainees.

Of the 251 detainees housed at BTC, seven have criminal convictions and 244 do not.

In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union identified 39 ICE detention centers that it believes should be shut down due to reports of abuse against detainees, limited access to lawyers and insufficient justification for opening them. On the list were two South Florida facilities: the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven. BTC was not listed.

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