U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are expected to transfer 1,600 illegal immigrants into federal prisons, according to a Reuters report released Thursday.
Agency officials told Reuters that five federal prisons will ‘temporarily’ take in migrants awaiting civil court proceedings. One facility in Victorville, CA, is expected to house 1,000 people.
Union leaders in Texas, Washington and California said the massive influx of detainees could pose problems with safety and staffing. The Trump administration, which has taken an increasingly hardline stance on illegal immigration, has given prisons little time to prepare for the transfer.
‘At Victorville,’ reports Reuters, ‘workers are moving about 500 inmates in a medium-security facility to make space’ migrant detainees.
“There is so much movement going on,” said John Kostelnik, local president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals union. “Everyone is running around like a chicken without their head.”
The administration’s initiative marks the first large-scale transfer of immigrants from ICE detention facilities to federal prisons.
Agency spokesman Dani Bennett said ICE “is working to meet the demand for additional immigration and detention space, both long and short term,” citing a surge in illegal border crossings and recently implemented policies.
Since May, the Justice Department has taken a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration across the southern border—putting already-burdened facilities past carrying capacity.
“To meet this need, ICE is collaborating with the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), private detention facility operators and local government agencies,” said Bennett in a statement.
Despite a downward trend in irregular border crossings over the past several years, April saw nearly 51,000 people apprehended ‘at or near’ the United States-Mexico border. Last year, during the same month, the number was closer to 16,000.
Predictably, immigration advocates and former government officials have condemned the move, questioning the sensibility of sending asylum-seekers to live alongside hardened criminals.
“Our federal prisons are set up to detain the worst of the worst. They should not be used for immigration purposes,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
“Federal prisons are for hardened criminals. They are not physically set up for immigrant landscapers looking for a job or fleeing violence,” said Noorani.
ICE detainees, writes Reuters, are usually housed in ICE detention facilities or county jails.
Under President Barack Obama, private detention facilities were used to cope with heightened illegal immigration. Near the end of his second term, with unauthorized border crossings falling, the for-profit prison industry went into decline—before being revived by Donald Trump.
Former government officials have also condemned the initiative, raising concerns broached by the use of private detention facilities to inter immigrants.
“A large percent of ICE detainees have no criminal record and are more vulnerable in a prison setting—security staff and administrators at [Bureau of Prison] facilities have spent their careers dealing with hardened criminals serving long sentences for serious felonies, and the procedures and staff training reflect that,” said former ICE director Kevin Landy. “This sudden mass transfer could result in some serious problems.”