White House considers ending for-profit immigrant detainee centers, but critics say it could add billions to the cost

The South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest of the nation's three immigration detention centers for families, housing up to 2,400, is operated by a private company.
(Molly Hennessey-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

The Obama administration is considering an end to the practice of keeping immigrant detainees in for-profit centers, weeks after the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced it would stop its use of private prisons.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose agency includes the immigration service and the Border Patrol, in late August ordered a review of ways to end the use of the private facilities.

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9:10 a.m. Sept. 6, 2016

A previous photo accompanying this article had a caption saying it showed the immigration detention center in Adelanto, Calif. The photo showed the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility, which is next to the detention center.

A decision to do so would mark a major victory for the coalition of civil rights groups and immigrant advocacy organizations that has sought to roll back the growth of the private-prison industry. Immigration detention facilities house far more detainees than the private facilities the federal prison system has used.

But immigration officials have pushed back against the idea, arguing that they have no cost-effective alternative to the private facilities and that other choices could be worse.


“It would be remarkably detrimental,” said a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, speaking anonymously to comment on the internal debate.

Cutting out private companies from the system would cost taxpayers billions of dollars more a year and take more than a decade to implement, the official warned.

Johnson’s Homeland Security Advisory Council is expected to make a recommendation by the end of November. The secretary has not indicated which side of the debate he favors.

Nine of the country’s 10 largest immigration detention facilities are operated by private companies, and they hold about two-thirds of the detainees in a system that currently keeps more than 31,000 people in custody on a typical day. While some centers are located in border areas, others are far from the border because deportation officers arrest migrants living in the interior of the country as well.

The federal government contracts with four privately run detention facilities in California that hold about 3,700 people each day, including immigrants in the country illegally, asylum seekers, green card holders and those awaiting immigration hearings.