ICE at a Crossroad

The recently-completed contract detention facility in Pearsall, Texas, is the ninth such structure procured by ICE. In addition to privately operated facilities, ICE detainees are also housed in Service Processing Centers owned and operated by the agency and in county jails and state prisons across the country.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials estimate there is a fugitive population of 400,000 illegal aliens who have been ordered removed but have not left the country or been deported. As ICE steps up efforts to reduce this number, the agency’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations must keep pace by providing secure housing when these immigrants are detained.

A division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that replaced the INS, ICE operates eight of its own classification and detention facilities, known as Service Processing Centers. "We’re not opening any new ones," says Ricardo Lemus, ICE’s director of facilities. "What we’re doing is working with existing SPCs and building buildings within them."

The goal is to streamline the processing of detainees and to increase ICE’s capacity. "To that end, we’re coming up with prototypical buildings types at several of our facilities," Lemus tells Correctional News. "One is a prototypical administration and processing center, which will deal with the processing of the detainee once he arrives into the system, and also a new prototypical dorm, which we can use to quickly house detainees." The prototypes are expected to be finalized by the end of the summer.

ICE’s future facilities may demand higher security. "There are a lot of detainees that have a violent background, where before it was the pickers and a different type of illegal alien. One way to accomplish our mission is the contracting, another is using the local facilities, and another is creating a one-stop shop within the SPCs for processing and the security portion. If Congress gives us more funds, we can do more," Lemus says.

The 238,000-square-foot, 1,020-bed South Texas Detention Center is a build-operate project by Correctional Services Corp. ICE is likely to require more contract detention centers like this.

Homeland Security detained approximately 231,500 aliens during fiscal year 2003. Approximately 115,000 of these aliens had criminal records. Although 52 percent of all detainees were aliens from Mexico, their relatively short stays in detention meant that they accounted for only 22 percent of detention bed days. The other leading countries were Cuba (8 percent of bed days), Honduras (7 percent), El Salvador (7 percent), Guatemala (6 percent) and China (5 percent).

In addition to the eight SPCs, ICE also contracts out to private prison operators to house illegal alien detainees. In May, Correctional Services Corp. completed ICE’s ninth contract detention center in Pearsall, Texas, and is currently operating the 1,020-bed facility as well. Last year, CSC also opened a new contract detention center in Tacoma, Wash.

Procurement standards prevent ICE officials from going into detail on upcoming contracts, but the agency is evaluating several regions for the development of more contract service centers. "We don’t per se purchase a building, we purchase the detention services, and the building is a fundamental requirement for providing those services, says Tim Perry, deputy assistant director for the Office of Detention and Removal Operations’ Detention Management Division, which procures and oversees contract facilities. "We don’t anticipate our requirements going away and therefore we anticipate future solicitations to be similar to the ones that we’ve issued in the past."

ICE Glossary

ICE: The Immigration and Naturalization Service was abolished by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and transferred from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security. At that time, the INS was renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

DRO: Within ICE, the Office of Detention and Removal Operations is responsible for the fiscal and physical monitoring of the Department of Homeland Security’s detention resources and operations.

SPC: Service Processing Centers are classification and detention centers owned and operated by the DRO. There are eight SPCs in Buffalo, New York; San Pedro, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; Port Isabel, Texas; Florence, Ariz.; Krome, Fla.; El Centro, Calif.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. No new SPCs are planned, but expansion initiatives are under way at several facilities.

Contract Facilities: Privately-owned and/or operated detention facilities that have been contracted by ICE or the U.S. Marshals Service for ICE use. A variety of private prison companies operate contract facilities in Aurora, Colo.; Queens, N.Y.; Elizabeth, N. J.; Eloy, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; Pearsall, Texas; Laredo, Texas; San Diego, Calif.; and Tacoma, Wash. Several new contract facilities have been constructed for use by ICE in the past few years and more are expected.

IGSA: Intergovernmental Service Agreement facilities include local and state detention facilities and jails that rent available beds to ICE for a contracted per diem. In 2003, 55 percent of ICE’s average daily population of 21,000 detainees were being held in some 320 IGSAs.

National Detention Standards: ICE uses American Correctional Association standards in combination with its own National Detention Standards, that meet ICE’s specific processing needs in detaining a population with higher turnover.

JPATS: The Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System is a system of air transport networks and vehicles available to federal law enforcement agencies, most notably DRO and the U.S. Marshals Service, for the movement of federal prisoners and detained aliens.

Endgame: The DRO’s Strategic Plan for 2003-2012, covering the apprehension, detention and removal of illegal aliens. The document is available on ICE’s Web site,

Operation Predator: Operation Predator is a detainee apprehension initiative that evolved out of ICE’s mission to find and deport illegal aliens, particularly those with criminal records. Announced two years ago, Operation Predator arrested its 5,000th detainee in March 2005.

The Detention Management Division at DRO is currently discussing capacity planning initiatives and looking at immigration trends, but it does not yet have projections available. "We’re looking at immigration trends along the Southwest border," says Perry. "We have other populations, however, that include the criminal alien population, populations that are comprised of illegal aliens who are serving convicted time in local, state and federal facilities. That is a very large generator of our requirements right now, but a lot depends on how the immigration laws are implemented."

The opening of contract detention facilities in both Pearsall and Tacoma were followed by news reports about nearby sheriffs who believe the new facilities will put an end to their own contracts to rent beds to ICE. It remains to be seen if DRO contracts with private prison companies will grow at a rate that will severely diminish jail revenues nationally. ICE has a huge task on its hands and is likely to continue to seek help from not just contracted facilities, but local jails and state DOCs as well, which ICE terms Intergovernmental Service Agreement facilities.

But there is cause for concern. A few years ago, contracts with ICE and other federal agencies became a de-facto replacement for federal VOI/TIS grants for upgrading county jails and state prisons. Allocations for those grants, federal assistance intended to help localities respond to inmate population surges caused by stiffer inmate sentences, amounted to $435.5 million in 2002. The next year, VOI/TIS allocations plummeted to just $8.4 million and have now disappeared almost entirely.

The average daily population for facilities that are strictly ICE owned or contracted is about 18,150 per day, including SPCs, contract detention facilities, and Intergovernmental Service Agreement facilities. The average daily population of the SPCs alone is about 4,200, according to Lemus. That leaves about 14,000 beds between the IGSAs and the privately operated contract facilities.

Correctional News asked Perry if ICE projects a need for multiple 4,000-bed contract facilities, as has been reported elsewhere. "We try to capture efficiencies to the extent that we can," Perry replied. "However, there is a set of diminishing returns once you get above a certain size. I can’t tell you what that perfect size is, but 4,000 is a very large facility. We have not issued a requirement for a facility of that size, I can tell you that."

Perry notes that the average length of stay for ICE detainees is short. "We’re talking a matter of a few months rather than years," he says. "It’s very different from your typical correctional environment, where individuals are designated to that facility and they stay in that facility for a long period of time. ICE’s mission is not to have long-term detention, if we can avoid it. Our mission is to provide safe and secure detention for individuals as they progress through the immigration administrative process until a determination on their case is made."