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United States: Immigration Detention Set to Expand Despite Growing Calls to Reduce Detainee Numbers Amidst Reports of Mistreatment and Terrible Detention Conditions

Aurora migrant detention facility, Colorado (Source:
Aurora migrant detention facility, Colorado (Source:

A number of civil society groups in the United States have recently published highly critical reports alleging abusive and inhuman conditions at privately operated immigration detention centres. These include reports of abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable people, medical neglect, and failure to provide access to legal assistance. Private prison operators are nevertheless planning important extensions in their agreements with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  

Growing Criticism

In an open letter sent on 24 April to President Joe Biden, numerous human rights groups criticised the administration’s decision to expand the budget for ICE’s detention operations, stating: “Last month, you signed a spending bill that provides historically high funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention – $3.4 billion in taxpayers’ money. Our organisations work with and advocate on behalf of people who have experienced immigration detention. They carry lifelong scars from the mistreatment and dehumanisation they endured because of the United States’ reliance on detention, mostly through private prisons and county jails. Your administration is further entrenching this reliance, marking an utter betrayal of your campaign promises.”

The letter argues that the decision to expand her budget is inconsistent with the evidence presented by Biden administration officials of significant costs and staffing shortages, which would indicate the need to either shut down or reduce the number of detention facilities. The letter strongly criticised the US’s entrenched reliance on ICE detention despite its ineffectiveness, and condemned the intention to bolster a system that is “riddled with abuse and impunity.” 

The letter came on the heels of a civil rights complaint issued by a coalition of NGOs denouncing the mistreatment of vulnerable migrants in a detention facility in Colorado. The complaint was submitted on behalf of five transgender and nonbinary (TNB) migrants, currently detained at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility–a privately-owned prison where Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain people for administrative purposes.

The complaint decries medical neglect, inadequate access to mental health care, dehumanising treatment, discrimination, and harassment in the facility, and it calls for reforms in ICE’s handling of TNB migrants. It also stresses the negative effect of detention on vulnerable people, such as transgender and nonbinary migrants. “Immigration detention negatively impacts their mental health, impedes timely access to gender affirming care, and triggers prior trauma. Discrimination and mistreatment within ICE custody exacerbates the harm people who are TNB face.”

The complaint urges the introduction of robust safeguard policies and regular monitoring to guarantee that protective measures are implemented. It also points to previous records of abuse, discrimination, and neglect reported by TNB migrants at the Aurora facility, revealing a long-lasting trend of mistreatment towards vulnerable migrants elsewhere in the US.

Expanding Private Detention

Also in April, county commissioners in rural New Mexico extended agreements with ICE for the detention of migrants at the privately operated Torrance County Detention Facility. The move sparked renewed criticism from migrant rights advocates, who had previously solicited immigration authorities to end their contract with the private operator because of frequent reports of inhumane living conditions and limited access to legal advice at the facility. In August 2022, a 23-year-old Brazilian migrant suffering from depression committed suicide after being denied asylum. Reportedly, he did not receive appropriate mental health care while in confinement.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the GEO group–one of the main private prison companies in the US–is pushing to sign a contract with ICE to house up to 600 immigration detainees in one of their detention facilities in Newark, Delaney Hall, where they previously detained migrants during 2011 – 2017. This would go against legislation signed in 2021 by Gov. Phil Murphy which banned private and public facilities in New Jersey from signing contracts with ICE for the detention of migrants. The law came after years-long protests by advocate groups over the unacceptable conditions in which migrants were detained in the counties of Bergen, Essex, and Hudson. “Over the years, hundreds of migrants have been held at the facilities, reportedly in deplorable conditions. Detainees wait there for court hearings and face possible deportation. Numbers swelled when Donald Trump became president.”

Deportations to Haiti 

The US deported more than 70 Haitian citizens back to Haiti despite a surge in gang violence and severe instability in the country. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, Haiti experienced escalating conflict and endured a prolonged crisis dominated by powerful armed groups attacking state institutions across the nation. According to IOM, in March 2024 Haiti recorded 362,000 internally displaced people and increasing rates of food insecurity and vulnerability. Yet, in the same month, the US Coast Guard sent 65 Haitians back to the country after intercepting their ship near the Bahamas. “It’s unconscionable … to continue deporting people given Haiti’s catastrophic human rights and humanitarian situation,” said Nathalye Cotrino, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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