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Biden Has Yet To End The Business Of Detaining Immigrants As He Promised, Critics Say

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Since the campaign trail, President Biden has made clear his intention to put an end to the business of detaining immigrants for profit. Hundreds of privately run detention centers across the U.S. hold immigrants who are in the country illegally. But immigrant advocates say the administration is not following through on Biden's promise. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When President Biden visited the battleground state of Georgia for a rally to celebrate his 100th day in office, immigrant advocates were there to protest.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: End detention now. End detention now.

ROSE: Normally, the president would just ignore the hecklers until security could escort them out. But that is not what happened in Atlanta.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I agree with you. I'm working on it, man. Give me another five days.

ROSE: Not only did Biden engage with the protesters. He made sure the rest of the audience knew what they were talking about.

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BIDEN: There should be no private prisons, period - none, period. That's what they're talking about - private detention centers. They should not exist. And we are working to close all of them.

ROSE: This is Biden doubling down on his campaign promise to end privately run detention centers, including those that detain immigrants. Immigrant advocates have heard this before, and they're getting impatient.

GRACE MENG: President Biden made some strong promises about reforming detention that we applauded, and we would like to see him carry them out.

ROSE: Grace Meng is a lawyer with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. She and other immigrant advocates are disappointed that the Department of Homeland Security shows no sign of dismantling its detention network that relies heavily on private contractors. Immigration officials warn they may need that detention space, especially with the ongoing influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. And in California, the Department of Justice was in court this month arguing against a state law that bans privately run prisons and immigrant detention centers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Protesters were there, too, outside the federal appeals court in Pasadena, including Grace Meng from Human Rights Watch.

MENG: It just seems like another kind of kick in the teeth to say that you're going to defend a position that the Trump administration took to help private prison companies continue to keep contracts.

ROSE: The Justice Department says the California law should be struck down, arguing that the state can't tell the federal government who it can contract with. Meanwhile, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says he's concerned about what will happen when the U.S.-Mexico border reopens. Since the pandemic began, immigration authorities have been able to quickly expel thousands of migrants under an emergency public health order, so many of ICE's detention beds are empty. But acting ICE director Tae Johnson told Congress that could change very quickly, which has happened before.

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TAE JOHNSON: Just overnight, we could start seeing 3,000 and 5,000 people a day again - and then finding ourselves back in a situation like we were in 2019 where Border Patrol had, you know, 15,000 people in custody and no place for them to go.

ROSE: But watchdog agencies and human rights groups say the private detention industry has a long track record of detainee abuses and inadequate medical care. DHS has announced plans to shutter two ICE detention centers, including a privately operated facility in Georgia where a doctor allegedly performed unwanted gynecological procedures on detainees. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says he's reviewing concerns about ICE detention centers. And he was asked at a congressional hearing last month if he expects to close any more of them.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Congressman, we are studying the issue very carefully. My direction could not have been clearer, which is that we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in detention or substandard conditions.

ROSE: A few days after Mayorkas testified, DHS submitted its budget request, asking Congress to fund tens of thousands of detention beds, most of them in privately run facilities. Advocates say that's a long way from what Biden promised.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEARLY ORATORIO SONG, "OCCLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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