AUSTIN: A private prison company announced Thursday it has won a $110-million federal contract to build in Texas the first new immigrant detention centre under the Trump administration.
The GEO Group said that its 1,000-bed detention facility will be in Conroe, north of Houston, and will open by the end of next year. The facility coincides with President Donald Trump's promised expansion of immigration detention, part of a larger crackdown on immigrants in the country illegally that includes detaining people seeking asylum while they go through immigration proceedings.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement already has a record of more than 41,000 detainees.
The agency has also identified an additional 21,000 unused beds that it plans to use for detention, according to a memo reported Wednesday by the Washington Post. That memo notes that "ICE will be unable to secure additional detention capacity until funding has been identified."
GEO, ICE's second-largest private prison contractor, has approximately 3,000 empty beds nationwide, according to a February investor call.
Faced with a lack of funds and potentially thousands of empty beds, ICE's move to secure a new contract with GEO surprised immigrant rights advocates.
"This is totally unprecedented," said Silky Shaw, Co-Director of Detention Watch Network, a Washington-based non-profit fighting to end immigrant detention. "Even the most recent expansion we've seen has been county jails and repurposing facilities that have been shuttered."
Trump has instructed ICE to detain all individuals suspected of violating immigration laws.
"Aliens who illegally enter the United States without inspection or admission present a significant threat to national security and public safety," the president said in a Jan. 25 executive order asking ICE to "allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico."
Still, Carl Takei, Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said the contract was a "sign that the Trump administration's plans are a huge boondoggle for the private prison industry," which already operates about 75 percent of immigrant detention facilities.
Takei said the new facility's location was also striking, given that GEO already operates the 1,517-bed Joe Corley immigrant detention centre in the same small town.
"Frankly this surprises me ... This raises the question both of how much ICE is actually planning to expand its already enormous detention system and where they're going to get the money for all this," Takei said. "ICE has a pretty limited amount of money and they can't fund expanding detention in 2017 unless Congress passes supplemental appropriations."
GEO referred all questions to ICE, which did not return requests for comment.