On Jan. 26, shortly after his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to “ensure that our nation’s incarceration … systems are prioritizing rehabilitation and redemption” by eliminating the use of private prisons. It directed the U.S. attorney general to no longer create or renew federal contracts with “privately operated criminal detention facilities.”
While this executive order is a great step forward, it is also incomplete and exclusionary. It fails to include immigration detention centers and allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue contracting with private detention centers. That means private corporations will continue profiting off of detained immigrants.
Biden’s executive order, which aims to provide prisoners with “safe working and living conditions,” is a response to a 2016 Inspector General’s finding that “privately operated criminal detention facilities do not maintain the same levels of safety and security” when compared to federal prisons. Yet it does nothing to address the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of privately owned immigration detention facilities.
Federal data show that these privately owned detention centers house about 70% of all detained immigrants. But privately owned detention centers have a poor reputation for creating unsafe environments for immigrants.
According to Freedom for Immigrants, many detention centers have been reported for spraying toxic chemicals around immigrants, denying immigrants proper medical services, and putting immigrants at risk of many other forms of abuse. While the Biden administration has set out a list of progressive immigration reform orders, memorandums and moratoriums, it has not held private detention centers accountable for the harm they have caused in recent years.
Given the history of mass deportations by the Obama and Trump administrations, President Biden faces a great deal of pressure when it comes to immigration reform. Instead of investing in corporate-owned detention centers, the administration must end contracts with privately owned detention centers and invest in providing rehabilitative care for immigrants. It is time for Biden to fix the immigration wounds he helped create as vice president.
For years, immigrant activist groups like United We Dream have been advocating for immigration policies that are humane. Now more than ever, it is our duty as a nation to treat immigrants with dignity and respect. As we settle into a new presidency, we must ensure that these early promises of immigrant reform are brought to fruition.
The Biden administration, sadly, has already fallen short on a number of immigration promises, including his promise to halt all deportations during his first 100 days of office. We must continue to hold his administration accountable. The executive order to reform our nation’s incarceration system can very well be part of the immigration reform he promises.
Immigration detention centers are not safe places for immigrants. As the daughter of an immigrant and someone who studies immigrant health and well-being, I am tired of seeing news headlines of immigrant women being forcibly sterilized and immigrants dying in ICE custody. It is unacceptable for private GEOs to profit from treating immigrant families in such inhumane ways.
If Biden wants to do better than those that came before him, he must hold ICE accountable for the deaths it has caused and the traumas it has imposed on immigrants and their families.
Myrella Gonzalez is a graduate student at UCLA pursuing a dual degree in social welfare and public health. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.