ACLU says migrant detention center should be closed

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling on the Biden administration to close one of its private immigration detention centers after a Brazilian asylum seeker killed himself while being held at the US facility center in New Mexico.

The Torrance County Detention Center in Estancia, New Mexico, houses about 160 people and has been under surveillance for months. In an unusual move earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued an alert urging the Biden administration to relocate detainees immediately.

Now the ACLU is issuing a new appeal after receiving government documents that the support claims conditions there are “appalling”. The notes, made available to the New York Times, describe structural problems with the building and complaints from inmates that they are unable to communicate with their lawyers and that the drinking water is making them ill.

The situation in Torrance revives a long-standing debate about the detention of immigrants, many of whom are asylum seekers, and the government’s reliance on the private prison industry to house tens of thousands of them at one time.

Lawyers familiar with Kesley Vial’s case say the 23-year-old Brazilian asylum seeker killed himself in Torrance in August after months of detention, where he struggled to get basic information from officials about his case. It was the third death of a detainee in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in the past year. His death is still being evaluated by the agency.

“We’ve told ICE and CoreCivic multiple times that Torrance is a terrible place, that something bad could happen,” said Casey Mangan, an attorney for an immigration protection organization that regularly works with inmates in Torrance. “Unfortunately that happened.”

ICE officials disputed the ACLU’s characterization of conditions at Torrance, saying the detention center met standards required by the federal government, standards that pro-immigration advocates say are too low.

“If these standards and requirements are not met, ICE will terminate the Facility Use Agreement,” said Jason Houser, the agency’s chief of staff. Torrance is operated by for-profit prison company CoreCivic, which also said the facility meets federal standards.

Immigrant detention is only part of a larger discussion about who can enter the United States to seek refuge and work. The actions of Republican governors — Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida — to transport migrants across the country by bus or plane, a political ploy to earn points for immigration in the midterm elections, have even more attracted attention to the problem.

Complaints about prison conditions have persisted for years, leading to increasing levels of surveillance. But ICE consistently reports that nearly all of its detention facilities meet national standards.

President Joe Biden promised to end long-term immigration detention. Since taking office, he has stopped providing shelter or reduced the number of immigrants at six facilities that have been a concern for human rights defenders and government investigators for years. The government also halted the incarceration of immigrant families, and Biden called for 9,000 fewer immigrant prison beds in his latest budget request.

For months, complaints have been mounting about the living conditions of detainees and detainees’ access to legal counsel in Torrance.

Recently, the ACLU’s New Mexico office and another advocacy group, the Innovation Law Lab, obtained documents through a public filing request, including maintenance records and personnel information that attorneys say support previous complaints.

One of the documents registered more than 2,000 maintenance calls between August 2021 and July of this year for situations such as clogged or overflowing toilets, lack of hot water, and other issues related to the physical structure of the building, which has more than 30 years of Antiguaty.

“CoreCivic’s own records demonstrate that these serious health and safety issues have been known for a long time,” said Rebecca Sheff, lead attorney for the ACLU’s New Mexico office.

Attorneys for inmates in Torrance said they find it difficult to schedule meetings with their clients to discuss fundamental issues about their cases. Phone calls are often cut off. And when they spoke to detainees, they heard the same complaints about structural problems with the building and drinking water that they thought made them feel sick. And there have been repeated reports that the center is understaffed.

ICE Chief of Staff Houser visited the facility earlier this month and said he drank the water and did not feel sick. An ICE spokesman said Torrance inmates are getting 130 minutes of free phone calls per week in 10-minute increments, which may explain why calls are being dropped.

ICE oversees 178 facilities across the country, most of which are run by private companies or county jails, where immigrants who entered the country illegally are detained.

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