During his campaign, President Biden vowed to end all privately-run detention facilities, including immigration detention facilities. The United States immigration system uses detention facilities to keep individuals suspected of visa violations, illegal entry, or any kind of immigration violation. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has two detainment offices: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which holds migrants for longer periods, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which holds migrants for shorter periods, usually a week or less. Currently, ICE holds 20,892 detainees as of Jan. 15, 2023, half of which have no criminal records, and more whose only offenses are minor traffic violations. ICE maintains 131 facilities, which operate under different arrangements, such as ICE-owned Service Processing Centers, privately-owned Contract Detention Facilities, and through agreements with state and local governments and federal agencies.
There are six immigration detention facilities in Georgia: Irwin County Detention Center, Stewart Detention Center, Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility, Folkston ICE Processing Center, Folkston Immigration Processing Center (Annex), and Folkston Immigration Processing Center (DR James). In recent years, two detention facilities in Georgia gained national attention: Folkston ICE Processing Center and Irwin County Detention Center. Previously a state prison, Folkston ICE Processing Center became a detention center in 2017, under a contract service between Charlton County and ICE. In 2021, Folkston ICE Processing Center signed a deal to quadruple the number of beds, making it one of the biggest detention facilities in the nation. Since its opening, the county in which the facility is located has seen extreme growth in poverty levels, and one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 cases and deaths after the Charlton County hospital closed due to “financial instability.” Neal, a Jamaican citizen who lived in South Florida for 25 years, spent 17 months at the Folkston facility and witnessed various instances of infringement of basic rights. For example, one diabetic man did not receive his insulin treatment for so long that he fell into a diabetic coma. While at the facility, Neal was also denied regular confidential meetings with his lawyer and was charged exaggerated prices for essentials.
In 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (IDCD) alleged that women at the immigration center were being forced into unwanted and unnecessary surgeries and procedures by Dr. Mahendra Amin. After political outcry, a bipartisan subcommittee led by Congressman Jon Ossoff began investigating the allegations of medical abuse at the facility. The 18-month investigation did not find evidence of mass hysterectomies, as Wooten alleged, but found “high rates” of non-consensual hysterectomies on women, and that they were “subjected to excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures.” The subcommittee also heard depositions of numerous women who were held at this facility, including Cisneros Preciado, who was transferred to ICE custody very soon after giving birth to her child. At the facility, Preciado was sent to Dr. Amin for a postpartum check-up, where she said he “barely acknowledged her, roughly examined her pelvis, diagnosed her with a cyst, and administered an injection,” after being forced to sign a paper she barely understood. Similarly, Senator Ossoff called the findings “deeply disturbing” and a “catastrophic failure by the federal government to respect basic human rights.”
Following the investigation, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas instructed ICE to terminate its contract with the Irwin County Detention Center, however, local and national immigration rights advocates have been trying to call attention to nationwide violence against women and girls in detention facilities, especially towards women of color who don’t speak English. Systemic abuse in immigration facilities is not an isolated incident, and closing one detainment center is not enough to guarantee their safety.
The immigration process in the United States is a confusing and complicated process involving the federal, state, and local governments and overlapping jurisdictions. In Georgia, local leaders must carefully weigh the short and long-term costs of aggressive enforcement against the economic benefits of maintaining such detainment facilities. Although precise numbers are scarce, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, it is more costly for local governments to maintain ICE detainment facilities, as public safety, aggressive enforcement, expenses for detention and salaries, psychological trauma, and local officials’ risk of legal liability costs drive up the economic burdens. Currently, local governments in Georgia are already reevaluating their roles, for example, Clarke County announced in 2018 they would no longer honor detainer requests, followed by Clayton and Dekalb counties. The first step to dismantling the U.S. Immigration Detention System is for local governments to end contracts with private companies, and for state legislatures to pass bills to push back against immigrant detention statewide. Williamson County, Texas, for example, officially ended its contract with a local detention center and its agreement with ICE in 2021, where more than 500 immigrant women reported sexual abuse. As poor living conditions gain media attention nationwide, local governments need to reevaluate their roles in the immigrant detention system in the United States.