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Biden administration's immigrant detention moves highlight strained system

The administration is shaking up federal immigration detention and enforcement amid a push to cut costs systemwide and increase detention capacity to implement President Biden’s new asylum policy.

The bombshell cost-cutting plan came out Monday, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the closure of the South Texas Family Residential Center, a 10-year-old detention facility better known as Dilley.

Advocates are reporting other cost-cutting measures — in particular, they are concerned that detainees are no longer allowed a weekly phone call that for many represented their only connection to the outside world, and to legal representation.

While it’s unclear whether the need to expand border detention is driving all the changes, advocates say that’s a distinction without a difference.

“I think that all of these steps are a part of their rightward shift on immigration policy, both on asylum and the border and detention, and what they perceive to be the way to go politically, with no consideration for the harm that it imposes on immigrant communities,” said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“So, the question of whether it links to the order last week, you know, doesn’t really matter when we’ve seen the pattern from this administration of an embrace of immigration detention as a way to enforce immigration laws and respond to challenges politically on immigration,” she added.

The Biden administration’s political challenge on immigration has only grown over the past three years — its efforts to tighten controls at the border have been brushed off by Republicans and decried by the left.

The limited expanded legal pathways introduced by the Biden administration have similarly been denounced as an illegal invitation to foreign nationals by the right and as an insufficient humanitarian safety valve by immigrant advocates.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a group of reporters that the administration has no plans to further expand those legal pathways through ports of entry because of “operational constraints,” according to NPR’s Sergio Martínez-Beltrán.

Administration officials, however, are pushing for an expansion of ICE’s arrest and detention capabilities.

That push is rooted in a disconnect that officials see between the tasks demanded of ICE by Congress and the resources provided by legislators.

In an exclusive interview on NewsNation’s “Elizabeth Vargas Reports,” acting ICE Director Patrick Lechleitner said the agency needs Congress to increase its funding.

According to ICE officials, the agency’s non-detained docket — migrants released to the interior with either deferred removal or pending cases — has grown to about 7.5 million people.

People on the non-detained docket can be required to check in with ICE as seldom as once a year, or they can be plated in the alternatives to detention program, which mostly means electronic monitoring through bracelets or phone-like devices.

Lechleitner complained that ICE has relatively few agents to monitor that group.

“That’s like a probation parole officer overseeing about 7000 people. It’s silly. It’s really crazy. It’s just so large and it’s, it’s untenable,” he said on NewsNation. “We don’t have enough people to arrest our way out of this.”

NewsNation is owned by Nexstar Media Group, which also owns The Hill.

Those complaints strike at the core of the fundamental divisions between the Biden administration and immigrant advocates, who see a threat in an expanding immigration enforcement system.

“The experience of immigrant communities is that the more we bloat and expand a punitive immigration enforcement system, the more permanent that approach to immigration becomes,” Gupta said.

“So, these changes, whether they want to think they’re temporary or not, they contribute to an inflated enforcement system that costs American taxpayers a ton of money, imposes irreparable harm on immigrant communities, and does nothing to actually solve humanitarian challenges at the border where they’re facing political pressure,” she added.

And advocates who work where the ICE rubber meets the road say the agency’s changes – whether tied to the asylum proclamation or not — are worsening outcomes for foreign nationals caught up in the system.

In the closure announcement Monday, ICE officials underscored that Dilley was the most expensive facility in the system, and that by eliminating it the agency would net a 1,600-bed expansion of the detention system.

“They’re telling [detention center operators], ‘lower your cost.’ And what does that mean? ‘Lower the standard of life,’” said Maru Mora-Villalpando, a community organizer with La Resistencia, a group that’s focused on abuses at the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) in Tacoma, Wash.

“Every time somebody dies or we know of a medical neglect case, the first thing that we see from ICE is the same statement. ‘We take very seriously the wellbeing and health of the people under our custody’ — I’m paraphrasing that, but they always send the same template response. Yet you see the conditions,” Mora-Villalpando continued. “That’s not what it is. So, for ICE, it’s always claiming they don’t have enough money and they keep asking for more money to Congress, and they get more money.”

She told The Hill that in addition to cutting the free weekly phone calls at NWIPC, severe cutbacks in cleaning staff and detainee work programs has led to worsening sanitary conditions at the facility.

“What ICE under the Biden administration is signaling, is that when it comes to people’s liberty, and their lives, and their rights, there’s a bottom line. And they are most interested in their best bang for their buck, regardless of what basic rights are violated,” Gupta said. “They are willing to cut off access to phones for detained people to call their loved ones in the name of having more beds and detention facilities.

Beyond denouncing those conditions, advocates are concerned that draconian immigration enforcement is being normalized.

“Immigrants have always been, since I’ve been here in the U.S., the scapegoat. One way or another. As long as you’re an immigrant and a person of color, you’re the scapegoat. All the problems [are] because of you,” Mora-Villalpando said.

“It’s all about us. The scapegoat. Scapegoating our community, and it has worked,” she continued. “Really a lot of people that vote, they want to see that because it’s so much easier to blame one specific community than to actually understand and do a critical analysis of the root causes of the different problems that we have as a country and as a community.”

That political scapegoating, Gupta added, is out of character for a Biden administration “operating from a place of fear.”

“If the Biden administration was operating from a place of confidence and strength rather than fear, then they’d be able to put forward an agenda to beat Donald Trump without throwing under the bus the most vulnerable, marginalized and powerless communities,” Gupta said. “Bullies throw under the most vulnerable because they’re scared, and that’s what these actions are about.”

Source: The Hill

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