US authorities are transferring about 1,600 immigration detainees into federal prisons, the first large-scale use of federal prisons to hold detainees amid a crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the administration of President Donald Trump .
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told Reuters on Thursday that five federal prisons will temporarily take in detainees awaiting civil immigration court hearings, including potential asylum seekers, with one prison in Victorville, California, preparing to house 1,000 people.
Trump has made his hard-line stance on immigration an integral part of his presidency and has promised to build a wall along the US-Mexican border to curb the flow of migrants from Mexico and Central America.
He has also promised to keep immigrants targeted for deportation locked up “pending the outcome of their removal proceedings.”
Under former President Barack Obama, many immigrants without serious criminal records were allowed to await their court dates while living in the United States. Others were housed in immigration detention facilities or local jails. ICE has used federal prisons in the past but not on this scale, sources said.
The United Nations has called on the US to “immediately halt” its controversial practice of separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.
The new policy drew criticism from immigration advocates and former officials.
Kevin Landy, a former ICE assistant director responsible for the Office of Detention Policy and Planning under the Obama administration, said the move to house so many detainees at once in federal prisons was “highly unusual” and raises oversight concerns.
“A large percent of ICE detainees have no criminal record and are more vulnerable in a prison setting – security staff and administrators at BOP facilities have spent their careers dealing with hardened criminals serving long sentences for serious felonies, and the procedures and staff training reflect that,” he said. “This sudden mass transfer could result in some serious problems.”
Officials of a prison employees’ union said the influx of ICE detainees, who were arrested at the border or elsewhere in the United States by immigration officials, raises questions about prison staffing and safety.