Variety of Detainees in ICE Custody Has Doubled in 5 Months, Increased Than July 2020 Complete

The number of inmates in ICE detention has doubled in the past five months, reaching 27,000 on July 22, even more than the 22,000 total in July 2020, the Associated Press reported.

While the statistic is still far from the August 2019 total of 55,000, it is a sore point for President Joe Biden’s pro-immigrant allies, who hoped he would reverse former President Donald Trump’s rigorous approach.

Biden campaigned for an end to “extended” detention and the use of private prisons for the detention of immigrants who still hold the majority of inmates in ICE custody.

“We are in this really strange moment with him,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network. “There is still time to turn things around, but his policies do not yet match his campaign rhetoric.”

More coverage from the Associated Press can be found below.

The number of ICE prisoners has doubled since February and reached 27,000 on July 22, 2021. Above, migrants caught crossing the US-Mexico border are loaded into a truck by US Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, New Mexico on July 22nd.
Paul Ratje / Getty Images

Alexander Martinez says he fled homophobia, government persecution and the infamous MS-13 gang in El Salvador only to encounter abuse and harassment in the American immigration prison.

Since crossing the border illegally in April, the 28-year-old has been commuting between six facilities in three states. He said he contracted COVID-19, was subjected to racist ridicule and abuse by guards, and was harassed by inmates for being gay.

“I find myself emotionally unstable because I suffered a lot while in detention,” Martinez said last week at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. “I never thought or expected to receive this inhuman treatment.”

He is among a growing number of people in immigration prisons across the country, many of whom, like Martinez, passed their initial medical examinations to seek asylum in the United States

In May, the Biden administration canceled contracts with two controversial ICE detention centers – one in Georgia and one in Massachusetts – and received praise from supporters who hoped this would mark the start of a wider withdrawal.

But no other facilities have lost their ICE contracts, and Biden has proposed funding 32,500 detention beds for immigrants in his budget, a modest decrease from 34,000 that Trump funded.

A White House spokesman said Biden’s budget is reducing the number of ICE detention beds and shifting some of their use to processing immigrants for parole and other alternatives.

Homeland Security Minister Alejandro Mayorkas said in a recent congressional hearing that he was “concerned about the overuse of detention facilities” and pledged to continue auditing troubled facilities.

The rising number of asylum seekers detained for extended periods of time is one of the most worrying developments, said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

The number of prisoners who passed their initial asylum examinations rose from around 1,700 in April to 3,400 at the end of July, which, according to the latest ICE data, accounts for around 13 percent of all prisoners.

“According to ICE’s own policy, these are people who should no longer be incarcerated,” Altman said, citing ICE’s process of paroling asylum seekers until a judge decides their case.

ICE officials declined to comment.

Martinez, the Salvadoran citizen, passed his first screening in May to determine whether an asylum seeker has a “credible fear” of persecution in his or her home country.

But his lawyers say ICE is holding him in custody for mistakenly believing he is a member of the MS-13 gang.

Martinez says he fled El Salvador after he and his family received death threats for testifying against the gang in the murder of one of his friends. He says investigators tried to get him to testify on other gang killings, but hesitated because he had not witnessed those crimes.

“I was very scared,” said Martinez. “I told investigators that I was leaving the case. I didn’t want to go through the process because I don’t want them to harm my family, let alone me.”

ICE officials in New Orleans declined to comment on Martinez’s case and specific concerns about treatment at Winn Prison, citing federal confidentiality rules for cases involving victims of violence and other crimes.

Winn, one of the largest ICE detention centers in the country, has long angered civil rights groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center in June called on the Biden government to terminate its government contract, citing abuse, medical neglect, racism and other ill-treatment at the facility, which is hidden in a dense forest in rural Louisiana and surrounded by barbed wire.

An agency spokesman said ICE is generally committed to ensuring that inmates are in a safe and clean environment, receive full medical care, and that their concerns and complaints are addressed in writing by staff.

Immigration opponents argue that an apparent decline in ICE enforcement in cities and towns is a more worrying trend than the rise in incarceration.

By last month, more than 80 percent of detainees had been arrested by border guards and less than 20 percent by ICE agents, the ICE data shows.

Last July, under Trump, 40 percent of the prisoners were picked up by the Border Patrol and 60 percent by ICE.

That means most detainees have been arrested while trying to enter the country illegally, not by the local immigration service, said Andrew Arthur, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which works to reduce immigration.

“We just don’t enforce inland immigration law,” he said.

Meanwhile, detainees and lawyers are calling for detention centers to be closed in order to use GPS devices and other measures to monitor paroled immigrants.

ICE detainees in Bergen County Jail, New Jersey, filed an administrative complaint with the Homeland Security Civil Rights Bureau last month for an investigation into allegations including poor sanitation and medical neglect during the pandemic.

“Ultimately, we are prisoners, not inmates,” said Jean Claude Wright, a 38-year-old Trinidadian native and former US Air Force officer named in the complaint. “But that’s worse than prison.”

ICE prisoners at the Plymouth County Penitentiary, Massachusetts, also sent a letter to supporters in June detailing issues such as visiting restrictions.

Allison Cullen says she has not been able to visit her husband, a Brazilian national, since the pandemic.

The couple’s youngest child was only a few months old when Flavio Andrade Prado was arrested and he hadn’t seen his now two-year-old daughter in person in months, she said.

“We’re in this endless limbo,” said Cullen, a US citizen from Brockton, about 25 miles south of Boston. “There’s no easy way to talk to my kids about what’s going on and when dad is coming home.”

Back in Louisiana, Martinez says he was asked to be placed in solitary confinement for fear of his safety.

Two inmates who molested him because of his homosexuality were relocated, but ICE officials later sent him to a high-security section that houses many gang-related inmates.

He says he spends most of his time in his cell, with limited access to communication and recreation.

“It’s really difficult and miserable and I’m alone all the time,” Martinez said. “I’m a good person. This treatment is inhuman.”

He plans to settle in San Jose, California, where a friend has promised to help him find work. He wants to send money back to El Salvador – his mother has cancer and his younger sister is studying.

“I just want what everyone wants,” said Martinez, “to get out there and be free and support my family.”

ICE prisoners double in the last 5 monthsImmigration detainee Alexander Martinez speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana on July 30, 2021. Since late February, the number of ICE detainees has more than doubled to nearly 27,000 (as of July). 22nd
Gerald Herbert / Associated Press

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