It took a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit by nonprofit groups Detention Watch Network (DWN) and Center for Constitutional Rights to make Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release its list of detention center facilities from July 2017. The detention facility spreadsheet contains basic information on centers’ locations, populations, and evaluations.
It is unclear why it took litigation to make this information available. But, as the Project On Government Oversight has previously reported, this is not the first time a Department of Homeland Security office has made it difficult to access documents with information that should be readily available to the public. In fact, ICE—not exactly in the spirit of transparency—posted the 2015 version of the facilities list to their FOIA reading room only to take it down soon after for well over a year before the list eventually reappeared in the Detention Facility Statistics section this November.
Perhaps one reason ICE was reluctant to give up this information is that, as DWN points out in a memo, the data shed light on ways ICE circumvents requirements that set the standards for its centers. For example, although detention centers are required to either comply with the agency’s 2011 standards or notify Congress in a report why compliance is not possible, the data showed that three detention centers were operating at the lowest standards from 2000 and ICE had not submitted reports to Congress to explain this lapse. Additionally, ICE exploited a loophole in a fiscal year 2009 rule that requires a facility to shut down if it fails two consecutive inspections by labeling final inspection results as pending so the facilities could stay open.
The detention facility spreadsheet also showed that 159 of the 201 detention centers have no expiration date on their contracts. These facilities’ contracts, over 100 of which are between 10 and 35 years old, do not have to go through a contract renewal process, which means it is highly unlikely that long-standing problems with the facilities will be addressed. This is particularly troubling since ICE detention centers are known to be fraught with abuse.
It is no secret that the Trump administration has been attempting to ramp up immigrant detention and deportation efforts. The 2017 detention facility spreadsheet indicated that 25 percent of ICE’s detention facilities were new or reactivated contracts with state and local governments signed in 2017. Furthermore, the average number of people detained in ICE facilities each day has increased by more than 5,000 since fiscal year 2016 and 10,000 since fiscal year 2015 according to same spreadsheet. The expansion of immigrant detention efforts means a growing potential for misconduct and waste. Now is the time to increase transparency and oversight, not curtail it.