As a presidential candidate in 2020, Joe Biden pledged to end for-profit immigration detention, saying, "No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence." The opportunity for action came early in the Democratic president's term, in May 2021, when immigration officials launched an internal review of detention centers to decide which should be scaled back, reformed, or closed, according to Reuters. The review followed years of complaints from government watchdogs, detainees, and advocates about poor medical care and sanitation, a lack of access to lawyers, sexual assault, and detainee deaths. The group shared findings with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, highlighting two dozen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and recommending some be closed. As illegal crossings reached record highs at the U.S.-Mexico border, putting pressure on Biden officials to keep detention space available, they announced the closure of only one facility in March 2022.
According to an examination of ICE data by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the stalled reform coincided with a surge in private jail earnings from ICE contracts under the Biden administration, as well as an increase in the percentage of inmates housed in private institutions. Some officials say that privatized prisons are superior to local jails that work with ICE. Companies claim to provide critical flexibility while adhering to ICE rules. While the evaluation aimed to eliminate or improve troublesome facilities, the White House and Mayorkas desired to keep detention beds open but were concerned about backlash in counties that benefited economically from the detention centers. The Biden administration reduced the use of some of the most criticized lockups, but it appeared to be "the barest minimum" compared to what was initially envisioned by the group that conducted the review, one officials said. A White House spokesperson said Biden "continues to support moving away from the use of private detention facilities in the immigration detention system." ICE regularly reviews detention operations "to ensure non-citizens are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled," a Homeland Security spokesperson said.