08/25/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2011

Proposed Immigrant Detention Centers Draw Criticism From Residents, Immigrant Groups

WASHINGTON -- Proposed immigration detention facilities in Florida and New Jersey will be ringed with barbed wire and house people against their will -- but don't call them jails or prisons.

"ICE has instituted reforms to address the vast majority of complaints about its immigration detention system," Barbara Gonzalez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson, said in response to criticism that the new facilities are essentially prisons. "The new facilities are specifically designed to meet the unique needs of ICE's immigration detention population which is not a penal system."

Advocacy groups are pushing back against proposed for-profit detention centers in New Jersey and Florida, arguing federal immigration authorities should come up with alternatives to detention rather than build additional facilities.

"One concern is just the expansion of numbers," said Silky Shah, field director of advocacy group Detention Watch Network. "Having more beds is just going to equal more people in detention."

The Department of Homeland Security currently has seven pending detention centers, including facilities in Texas, Illinois, California and Georgia. But the most contentious have been proposed centers in Essex County, N.J., and Broward County, Fla. The detention centers' backers are pointing to the sagging economy to argue that locking up immigrants will mean jobs for locals, but local residents and immigrant rights groups are encouraging a less detention-based immigration policy.

The for-profit prison industry sees such policies as a threat to its companies' bottom line, as the Geo Group, a major for-profit prison company, noted in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

The demand for our correctional and detention facilities and services [...] could be adversely affected by changes in existing criminal or immigration laws, crime rates in jurisdictions in which we operate, the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, and the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws or the loosening of immigration laws.

A filing by the Corrections Corporation of America -- its 2010 annual report, known as a 10-K -- is nearly identical:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

Both companies have insisted their facilities boost local economies.

But in New Jersey and Florida, immigrant rights groups have enlisted the support of local residents concerned about a detention facility being stationed in their communities.

"I moved out here because I thought I would be right up against the Everglades, not a prison,” Pembroke Pines resident Betsy Blume said at a town hall meeting earlier this month.

Immigrant rights groups argue that building more detention centers, even if they are less prison-like than current facilities, will merely exacerbate the problems that occur as a result of mass detention.

"The controversy really stems from in 2009 when [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] released this idea of detention reform and completely backtracked on all of it," Shah said. "They promised more oversight that they still don't have."

In October 2009, Dora Schriro, a former director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, reviewed the immigrant detention system and found that immigrant detainees -- some of whom have never committed a crime -- are functionally treated the same as convicted criminals. Immigration violations are civil, not criminal, cases.

Detention facilities are often surrounded by barbed wire and have few outdoor areas. At the time of the report, most were former prison buildings. Schriro wrote in the report that more detention centers should be operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rather than private companies, to allow for greater oversight.

Two years later, half of immigrant detainees are still held in for-profit detention centers. "They've basically told themselves that these facilities are not jails, but it's very, very clearly a jail," Shah said.

The new facilities are to be built primarily by for-profit prison and detention companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America.

"There's something innately wrong with having for-profit prisons, because when they cut corners, you're talking about people's lives," said Kathy Bird, a community organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "The reality is someone is going to get really rich off of this."

Corrections Corporation of America flatly denies that it cuts corners as part of its business practice, arguing it would be bad business to deliver a low-quality product to the government.

"We know from 30 years experience that to be successful we have to operate safe, secure facilities," Steve Owen, Corrections Corporation of America spokesman, said. "Treating the detainees and the inmates that are entrusted to our care is also a priority for us. We treat them with dignity and we treat them with respect."

Bird and the Florida Immigrant Coalition created a phone bank to talk to Broward County residents about the proposed detention center in their community. They found that many residents were unsure about having a detention center in the area, which is somewhat rural, Bird said. "This goes completely against what their lifestyle is," she said.

Bird has been trying to tell residents that detention centers are run largely by for-profit corporations who support harsh immigration enforcement so they can make money. Her group presented an area town council with a petition with more than 150 signatures asking them to reconsider the project.

"The narrative that we've been trying to get out is that [enforcement] programs like Secure Communities and laws like the Arizona copycat bills are the reason that these companies keep their detention centers full," she said, referring to Arizona's harsh SB 1070 immigration law.

In New Jersey, immigrant rights groups staged a rally in opposition to the proposed facility there earlier this year.

New Jersey immigration advocates have focused on educating the community about injustices in the detention system, such as a lack of access to counsel. They argue that instead of detention, the Department of Homeland Security should focus on alternatives, such as ankle bracelet monitors for immigrants slated for deportation.

"A lot of people are really taken aback when they hear about the lack of due process in the immigration system," New Jersey organizer Amy Gottleib said. "We can't let the building or the expansion of detention centers go on without highlighting the human rights violations that are going on."