While all the attention lately has been on the southern border and the overcrowding of detention facilities there, the situation on the interior of the country is at the polar opposite of the spectrum. At the height of President Trumps crackdown, detention centers throughout the interior of the nation were typically near capacity levels. However, lately, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released hundreds of people to lower the risk of COVID-19, and because the agency is arresting and detaining fewer unauthorized immigrants under orders from President Biden. The unfortunate part of this situation, is that this trend doesn’t translate into savings for American taxpayers. ICE structures its contracts with private companies and localities that own and operate the detention centers, and the agency guarantees it will pay for a minimum number of beds whether they are filled or not. For dozens of detention centers across the country with these “guaranteed minimums,” ICE pays more than $1 million a day for empty detention beds, according to a recent NPR analysis.
The numbers on detention are actually at the lowest levels they’ve been in 20 years, but taxpayers are still paying for empty detention center beds. After the number of undocumented immigrants in detention peaked under Trump at more than 55,000, the pandemic hit and President Biden won the election. Since then, the number of immigrants in ICE detention has plummeted to just over 14,000, as immigration detention centers have emptied out. ICE and the detention companies argue that a guaranteed revenue stream is needed in order to keep operations going. However, lately these dealings have come under more scrutiny by various watchdog agencies. ICE is now paying for more unused space than ever before, and a larger debate has been progressing about whether the government should be locking up many of these immigrants in the first place. ICE does not own or operate most of the facilities in its detention network. Instead, the agency contracts with private operators and county jails. The agency guarantees it will pay for about 29,000 beds per day.