U.S. to close, scale back four immigrant detention centers

The badge of ICE Field Office Director, Enforcement and Removal Operations, David Marin and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team search for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne, California, U.S., March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

WASHINGTON, March 25 (Reuters) - The United States will close a troubled detention center in Alabama and significantly scale back the number of beds contracted at three other facilities, citing concerns about conditions.

According to an internal document seen by Reuters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will discontinue use of the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, as it had "long been a facility of serious concern, due to the quantity, severity, diversity and persistence of deficiencies." ICE confirmed the planned closure, which was first reported by Reuters, in a statement on Friday.

While the facility does not currently house many detainees, the average length of stay remains high, the document said, adding that the age of the jail and the lack of outdoor space were of particular concern.

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The memo also said the agency would pause the use of Glades County Detention Center in Florida where there have been "persistent and ongoing concerns related to the provision of medical care at the facility."

In a Feb. 1 letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that oversees ICE, a group of lawmakers said Glades must be closed after complaints about racist abuse of Black detainees, the overuse of toxic chemicals, and a November carbon monoxide leak that led to four detainees being hospitalized.

Immigration advocates have for years raised complaints about a lack of adequate medical care and other problems at several ICE facilities and urged the administration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to close down the centers.

Concerns have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Reuters and other outlets reported that ICE's transfer of detainees between facilities exacerbated outbreaks and several immigrants died in custody.

ICE currently detains nearly 22,000 immigrants at facilities across the country.

Under Biden, ICE arrests and deportations of immigrants living illegally in the United States have plummeted compared with the administration of his predecessor, Republican President Donald Trump. The agency has de-emphasized enforcement against immigrants with no criminal history to prioritize the arrest of those committing serious crimes. read more

The measures are likely to spark criticism from Republicans who have said the Biden administration encourages illegal immigration, pointing to record numbers of migrant arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border, which are expected to rise further this year. Most of the migrants arrested at the border, however, have been immediately expelled under current policy aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in detention settings.

The document said ICE would also reduce the "guaranteed minimum" number of beds contracted at the Alamance County Detention Facility in North Carolina and the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, citing in part a reduced number of detainees.

ICE under Biden has phased out detention of migrant families and closed a handful of other facilities, some under pressure from local authorities. But advocates say the administration should do more to end detention at centers cited for violations.

This month, the DHS Inspector General watchdog urged the immediate relocation of immigrants held in the Torrance County, New Mexico, detention facility, citing unsanitary conditions and security lapses. ICE disputed the findings, stating that the watchdog ignored facts presented to it in order to achieve preconceived conclusions.

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Reporting by Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke; Editing by Howard Goller and Aurora Ellis

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