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Immigration Mandate Feeds Private Prisons

WASHINGTON (CN) - The federal Appropriations Act for this year requires that "not less than 34,000 detention beds" be available to imprison immigrants, far more than are available in federal immigration prisons, and a human rights group wants to know the effect this "Detention Bed Mandate" has on immigration policy.

The Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights dba the National Immigrant Justice Center sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget on Friday in a federal FOIA complaint.

The plaintiffs provide advocacy and direct services, including legal services, for refugees and immigrants.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2016, signed by President Obama on Dec. 18, 2015, requires that ICE be funded with enough money to "maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds" for immigration detainees, the complaint states, providing a link to the 887-page appropriations bill .

The Heartland Alliance/NIJC says that "the appropriations language 'maintain' has been interpreted to mean ' maintain and fill ,' on average, that many beds in privately owned detention facilities operated by for-profit corporations, state and county jails, as well as federal detention facilities."

Congress appropriated $2.3 billion to ICE for this year, for "Custody Operations, including funding necessary to maintain the requested number of detention beds," the Alliance says, citing the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2016.

The DHS is the parent agency of ICE.

"The monetary cost of the detention bed mandate is staggering," the Alliance says. Citing critical editorials from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News Service, the Alliance wants to know if this is a "statutory quota" of how many immigrants should be imprisoned every day, and whether such a quota violates Americans' sense of justice.

The New York Times editorial suggested there were less expensive alternatives that would protect the public "that don't involve fattening the bottom lines of for-profit prison corporations."

The Alliance requested information about ICE detention, releases, bond policies and procedures, specifically, "whether ICE has adopted uniform detention, release, and bond policies that are independent from bed space inventory and/or from ICE quotas or performance objectives."

It submitted a FOIA request for data in July 2015, seeking records on bed space at ICE's San Antonio and Seattle detention centers from June through November 2013, including the number of vacant beds and the population of the centers, broken down by gender.

It also sought information from 2009 to the present that would show the agency's policies for maintaining and filling the 33,400 detention beds it was required to provide until the 2016 appropriations act increased it to 34,000.

The DHS and ICE provided nearly 400 pages, including Excel spreadsheets, but withheld certain documents, citing an FOIA provision that releasing medical records constitute an invasion of privacy and cannot be released.

The Alliance filed an administrative appeal in April 2015, claiming the denial of those records was made without "meaningful explanation."

ICE and DHS replied in a letter of May 2015 that it had forwarded the appeal to its FOIA office for further review, according to the complaint.

The Alliance appealed again that month, an appeal to which DHA and ICE have not responded. Nor did they respond to another FOIA request for more information on details about filling beds that date back to January 2009.

In response to another administrative appeal, filed in September 2014, the OMB turned over two 6-page documents.

Unsatisfied, the Alliance filed yet another administrative appeal in September 2014. Communications then broke down, and no response was ever received, the Alliance says. Having exhausted its administrative remedies, it says it had no other option than to sue in Federal Court.

"NIJC has a legal right under FOIA to obtain the agency records requested from defendants ICE and DHS in the first FOIA request, and no legal basis exists for defendants' failure to make available the requested records," the lawsuit states.

The group wants the documents it requested, a court order barring the agencies from withholding them, and attorneys' fees incurred from the all the legal wrangling.

It is represented by Seth Watkins with Aducci, Mastriani & Schaumberg in Washington, D.C., and by its staff attorney Mark Fleming in Chicago.

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