Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released hundreds of people to lower the risk of COVID-19, and is arresting and detaining fewer unauthorized immigrants, ICE pays for a minimum number of beds whether they are filled or not. The agency structures its contracts with private companies and localities that own and operate the detention centers in such a way that the agency guarantees it will pay for a minimum number of beds whether they are filled or not, reports NPR. For dozens of detention centers across the country with these “guaranteed minimums,” ICE pays more than $1 million a day for empty detention beds. ICE does not own or operate most of the facilities in its detention network. Instead, the agency contracts with a patchwork of private operators and county jails. The agency guarantees it will pay for about 29,000 beds per day.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office published a report earlier this year finding that the number of guaranteed beds in ICE’s detention system grew 45 percent during the Trump administration and that, as of mid-May 2020, ICE was paying for more than 12,000 empty beds per day, at a cost of more than $20 million a month. But while temporary holding facilities are overflowing with unauthorized migrants and children at the Southwest border, in the interior of the country ICE detention has plummeted to just over 14,000, as immigration detention centers have emptied out. Critics say this isn’t just about money but about the morality of putting immigrants behind bars for civil violations. Many ICE detainees have not been convicted of any crimes. ICE and the detention companies argue that a guaranteed revenue stream is needed in order to keep operations going and defend the use of guaranteed minimums, arguing they help the agency negotiate a lower rate per detainee.