Immigrant Detainees: A New Cash Cow for Private Prison Contractors

There’s a lot of confusion around undocumented residents and it is very important to understand some critical differences in status. Presence through improper entry into the United States is a misdemeanor-level criminal offense under Federal Statute. Improper entry occurs when someone is found to have;

  • Entered or attempted to enter the country at any place or time other than designated by immigration officials.
  • Eluded inspection or examination by immigration officers, or
  • Attempted to enter—or entered—the country by willfully concealing, falsifying, or misrepresenting material facts.

For those convicted for improper entry a period of up to six months incarceration may be the result and a fine of $250.00 for each act may also be imposed.

A second category of status relates to those unlawfully present in the United States.  There are many reasons why a person may be unlawfully present, ranging from entering the country on a work or student visa and not renewing on time. Those in this broad category are not punished criminally, but civilly. The principle civil penalties used are deportation and removal. Prior to deportation and removal, however, those unlawfully present may—and in fact often are—detained and housed in immigration hold facilities.

For detainees, there’s no distinction in practice. They are tossed into facilities and held, often for inordinately long periods of time, and one aspect of that lengthy detention cycle is some rather rank profiteering on the part of private prison contractors.

Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) Prisons

In 2005 President Bush launched Operation Streamline, which requires all undocumented border crossers be criminally charged with unlawful entrance into the United States. These undocumented residents are swept up and detained in Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) facilities.  An article in Prison Legal News, citing a 2012 report by Grassroots Leadership, notes that in FY 2011, two private prison companies alone were paid $744 million and $640 million, respectively. The Grassroots Leadership report goes on to note that the Federal government has spent 5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants since 2005.

A wide range of organizations, including federal entities such as the Department of Justice, have documented atrocious conditions in privately-run facilities. In those private facilities housing undocumented detainees, conditions are often far worse. Among the problems are lack of sufficient facility staff, abuse by guards (including sexual assault and rape), lack of access to basic services such as medical care, routine use of solitary confinement and horrendous over-crowding.

In recognition of the poor conditions and treatment of prisoners in privately run facilities, President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to phase out private contractors in the Federal system. Private prison contractors stood to lose billions.

These companies began to explore alternative sources of revenue to compensate for any loss of profits and they found the perfect source, expansion of privately run immigration detention centers.

Lack of Proper Medical Services and Care for Immigrant Detainees

Whether detained for civil infringement or misdemeanor offenses, the fate of the undocumented is often very grim. Unlike all other categories of offenders detained for misdemeanor-level offenses, this population is not held in minimum security facilities. Also different is the fact that whole families are often detained, frequently for long periods of time. As the Grassroots Leadership report also notes there’s almost no access to legal representation for the detained.  One Federal Public Defender noted that he was allocated between 20-75 detainees with whom he was required to meet during a two hour access period—breaking down to just two minutes per client.

As has been well verified, undocumented detainees often receive substandard medical care or no medical care at all. Across the United States, including in the State of New Mexico, numerous instances of immigrant detainees who received inadequate medical care and who died as a result have been documented.


Immigrant Detention Facilities in the State of New Mexico

When President Obama pulled DOJ contracts from private prisons last year it caused no small level of consternation among private prison companies.  They stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars each. But new opportunities opened up with the election of President Trump. Private prison contractors would simply flip revenue sources, from the Department of Justice housing federal inmates to the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), housing undocumented immigrant detainees.

In New Mexico, there are three immigration detention facilities.  Two of these are county operated facilities:  Torrance County Detention Center and Otero County Processing Center.  The third is the Cibola County Correctional Facility which had been closed by the Bureau of Prisons due to abuse and neglect of non-immigrant prisoners has now been reopened as an ICE Detention facility. As noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in its report, Shadow Prisons: Immigrant Detention in the South,

“Earlier in 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would no longer contract with private corporations to operate federal prisons, a decision spurred by the declining prison population and the failure of private prisons to provide safe and secure facilities.

In the wake of the DOJ decision, the DHS announced it would also re-examine its use of privatized immigration facilities. But the agency quickly renewed or finalized contracts for thousands of additional beds. The agency has also expanded the number of individuals it plans to detain every night by 10,000 people – pushing the total number of detainees to an estimated 45,000 people.

What’s more, the agency’s new contracts include a facility – the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico – that lost its contract with the DOJ after reports of abuse and medical neglect. The DHS’s actions suggest that the private prisons no longer used by the DOJ, including some of the worst in the country, could simply become immigration detention centers.”


This new facility in Milan, New Mexico will ultimately hold hundreds of undocumented immigrant detainees under the same management and conditions that were considered unacceptable for non-immigrant prisoners.

Undocumented Immigrant Detainees have a Right to Medical Care & Services

If past experience in privately-run correctional facilities is an indicator of what may take place in privately-run immigrant detention centers such as Milan we can only anticipate that there will be people who will not receive adequate medical services and care. Sadly, this will lead to serious injury or even death in some cases.

It is very important for detainees and their families to understand that while they may be in a facility like the Cibola County Detention Center for being in an undocumented immigration status they still have the right to medical care and services.  When denied care and services it is wise to seek out legal representation from attorneys with expertise in pursuing justice for medical negligence and malpractice.