According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a private prison company will run a new U.S. pilot program that will place hundreds of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border under house arrest, an approach that critics say is an extension of for-profit detention.
The so-called “home curfew” pilot program will be run by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison company GEO Group, according to a DHS spokesperson and two US officials. Immigrants enrolled in the program would be confined to their place of residence in the United States for 12 hours a day and electronically monitored while awaiting court hearings.
The Biden administration has greatly expanded “alternatives to detention,” such as ankle bracelets and mobile phone monitoring. The choice of a private prison company to run the home curfew pilot demonstrates how corporations can maintain a strong presence in the world of immigration enforcement.
GEO Group declined to comment, instead referring inquiries to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees immigration detention and is overseen by DHS. When asked about the program, a DHS spokesperson said it was part of “significant detention reforms.”
US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, signed an executive order in January 2021 to phase out private prison contracts for federal jails in order to “reduce profit-based incentives” to incarceration and address systemic racism.
However, Biden has yet to fulfill a campaign promise to do the same for immigration detention. There are currently 21,000 immigrants detained by the federal government, up from 19,000 on September 30, 2020, before Biden took office. Because of COVID-19, immigration detention centers are operating at a reduced capacity.
The current detention population is still much smaller than it was before COVID, when former President Donald Trump, a Republican and immigration hardliner, was in office.
The Biden administration has closed two immigration detention centers and directed ICE to focus its arrests on serious criminals.
According to transcripts of recent conference calls, two of the country’s largest private prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, have been looking at detention alternatives, including remote monitoring, as a continuing source of revenue in the wake of Biden’s executive order on jails.
According to ICE data, approximately 164,000 immigrants are currently enrolled in alternative-to-detention programs, which is roughly double the number on September 30, 2020, before Biden took office. According to Reuters, the administration is asking Congress for funding for up to 400,000 enrollees.
According to federal contracting records, BI was awarded a $2.2 billion federal contract to administer such programs in 2020. According to a subsequent U.S. government report, CoreCivic disputed the contract, claiming it had proposed a lower price for the service – a sign of growing competition in the remote monitoring market.
Biden faced a record-high number of attempted border crossings during his first year in office, which has become an attack line for anti-immigrant Republicans in the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
While a COVID-19 public health order in place at the border allows officials to quickly expel most illegal border crossers, thousands continue to enter the country to pursue immigration claims. According to a recent ICE memo sent to lawmakers, adult asylum seekers will be among the hundreds of migrants participating in the house arrest pilot program, which will be tested in Houston and Baltimore.
Ankle bracelets and other forms of monitoring, according to immigrant rights advocates, are increasing surveillance of immigrants while not significantly reducing detention.
According to the ICE memo, the Biden administration is repurposing the federal government’s three family detention centers to hold only adults. But two of those facilities in Texas are managed by CoreCivic and GEO Group, which will continue to run them.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, a campaign organizer for Mijente, an immigrant advocacy organization. “[But] the idea was for them to close down, not for them to shape shift.”