Migrant Detainees Find Little Relief Under Biden

Despite a change in rhetoric, deportations of migrants continue under President Biden.

Maurizio Guerrero

Elpidio Monterrosa Ortiz shares a moment with his wife after release from ICE detention. He has lived in the United States since he was a child but now faces deportation to Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Freedom for Immigrants

SAN DIEGO, CALIF. —Elpidio Monterrosa Ortiz, a migrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, walked out of Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego — run privately by the CoreCivic corporation — in December 2020 wearing an ankle monitor. After Monterrosa Ortiz had been held for three months, his legal help had paid a $10,000 bond for his discharge. 

Few would have imagined that, under President Joe Biden, Monterrosa Ortiz’s release would be overturned. But five days after Inauguration Day, federal agents detained Monterrosa Ortiz, telling him, This time, you’re going straight to Mexico.”

Monterrosa Ortiz’s first detention took a heavy toll on his wife and five children. Their youngest suffers from seizures and their three eldest have autism. After securing his release, the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants connected Monterrosa Ortiz with a therapist to help with the trauma of the separation. Now, Monterrosa Ortiz is again uncertain about his future. He has lived in the United States since he was eight years old, but his deportation is pending. 

Monterrosa Ortiz’s predicament lays bare a brutal reality. Despite the Biden administration’s rhetoric and promise for a comprehensive immigration bill to open a pathway to citizenship, detained migrants presently face the same state violence as they did under President Donald Trump. 

On January 26, Biden signed an executive order phasing out federal contracts with private prisons. Yet despite Biden’s campaign pledge to include immigrant detention facilities, the order excluded them. (Corporate-run prisons, like CoreCivic’s, hold 81% of detained migrants and 9% of federal inmates, according to the Detention Watch Network, a coalition working to abolish immigrant detention in the United States.) 

Freedom for Immigrants— which helped pass the first statewide law to phase out private detention (in California) and worked on the federal Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act (to place a moratorium on detention expansion) — calls the situation unacceptable.”

Because Vice President Kamala Harris introduced the DONE Act as a senator in 2018, Christina Fialho, co-founder of Freedom for Immigrants, says she is hopeful that [a] Biden/​Harris administration will work with us [to] phase out immigration detention completely” in favor of community-based alternatives. 

Unfortunately, We have not seen anything yet,” says Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, regarding the Biden administration’s willingness to address the plight of detained migrants. “[It’s] concerning because already there was an announcement about private prisons.” 

The Trump administration’s deportation machinery still appears to be intact. A Trump-appointed judge in Texas blocked a 100-day moratorium on deportation January 26. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is ignoring new Biden administration guidelines and is disproportionately deporting African and Caribbean migrants amid allegations that ICE agents have assaulted asylum seekers. 

So far, only a small fraction of detained migrants have been released under President Biden, even as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic has surpassed 500,000. As of February 4, at least 22 people have had Covid-19 at the Bergen County Jail, which detains migrants through its ICE contract. The facility has the highest number of reported Covid cases among jails in the New York metropolitan area and is one of the 20 most-infected detention centers in the country. Otay Mesa had no active cases February 2, although it has had 203 total infections. (The true figures may be much higher, as ICE data is less than reliable.) 

On January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, 31 migrants in Bergen County Jail began a hunger strike to protest insufficient medical attention and access to Covid testing, the third such strike at the jail in recent months. The group Abolish ICE NY-NJ also claims that the jail, which holds up to 1,150 people, shut off its heat amid freezing temperatures. 

On social media, Abolish ICE NY-NJ posted that Covid-19 and discrimination continue to pose severe threats in places like [Bergen County Jail]” under a Biden administration, and that detainees & immigrants are not guaranteed protection of their human rights.” The group demands the administration “#FreeThemAll.”

As of February 4, ICE had confirmed the deaths of nine migrants from Covid-19 complications and 9,216 confirmed cases nationwide. Public health experts fear, because of insufficient testing, the coronavirus numbers are artificially low and transmission is actually more common. As a result, groups like Abolish ICE NY-NJ are calling for the release of all migrants. 

Advocates maintain that, for migrants without local families, releasing them to volunteer or group lodgings while they wait for the courts would be a cheaper, humane alternative to detention—a cost of $17 per person each day, compared with $145 to keep them imprisoned. 

Groups like Freedom for Immigrants add that electronic surveillance, as in the case of Monterrosa Ortiz, subjects migrants to workplace discrimination, to say nothing of how charging can restrict users’ mobility for hours at a time. Fialho, for example, calls ankle monitoring “[just] another form of detention.” Meanwhile, the practice is a lucrative business for BI Incorporated — a subsidiary of GEO Group, one of the largest ICE contractors in the United States — which makes electronic monitors. 

Advocates hoping to hold Biden accountable to his pledges remain cautious. 

We are going to do everything we can to push the administration to move in that direction,” Shah says. “[I’ll believe it] when I see it.”

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Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.

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