'We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,' said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
A detention facility in Georgia where women claim they were subjected to unwanted medical procedures and a Massachusetts jail that has drawn complaints of inhumane conditions will no longer be used to detain immigrants, the Biden administration said Thursday.
The Department of Homeland Security said it would terminate contracts with the local government agency that runs the detention center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and with the private operator of the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.
Any detainees the U.S. believes should remain in custody will be transferred elsewhere, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in announcing the move, which had been sought by immigrant advocates.
"Allow me to state one foundational principle," Mayorkas said, "We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention."
Mayorkas said ending the use of the facilities is part of an effort to make "lasting improvements" to a detention system that advocates have long argued detains people for civil immigration offenses for too long and in inappropriately harsh conditions.
It also reflects a broader effort to roll back the anti-immigrant policies that characterized U.S. policy under Donald Trump.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a part of DHS, holds about 19,000 noncitizens for removal at about 200 facilities around the country, down about a quarter from a year earlier. About 73% of those in custody have no criminal record and many others have only minor offenses, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University.
DHS suggested additional detention facilities could close in a statement that noted that it would "review concerns" about other centers.
"Today's announcements show the Biden administration's willingness to decisively break from the immigrants' rights abuses of prior administrations," said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently called for the closure of 39 immigration detention centers around the country.
The ACLU has called for an end to the "default incarceration" of immigrants and an end to the agreements with state and local authorities that enable prisoners who are noncitizens to be transferred into ICE custody for deportation upon release.
Mayorkas has led an effort to soften some immigration policies but has publicly insisted that noncitizens who pose a threat to the public and have committed serious crimes should be detained pending their removal from the country.
The Massachusetts jail was run under an agreement with the Bristol County Sheriff's Office. The Georgia facility was run by a private company under contract with ICE.
Members of Congress and advocates have called for the closure of the Georgia facility since last year after women held there told of being forced into unnecessary gynecological procedures with dirty equipment and other unsanitary conditions.
DHS and the Justice Department are investigating the allegations of medical mistreatment, which a doctor involved in their treatment has denied, and Mayorkas said that steps will be taken to preserve evidence.
Immigrants held at Irwin also had broader complaints about overall conditions, alleging that authorities at the detention center failed to take adequate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"Given its extensively documented history of human rights violations, Irwin should have been shut down long ago," said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an advocacy group that has pressed for ICE and the company that runs the facility to compensate women subjected to unwanted procedures there.
The facility in Ocilla, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, has been used to house men and women for ICE as well as inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service and Irwin County. It's run by the private LaSalle Corrections, a Louisiana company.
The company had no immediate comment on Thursday's announcement.
Immigrants held at the Massachusetts jail, known formally as the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center, have also complained about a lack of COVID-19 precautions as well as overcrowding and excessive use of force.
The Massachusetts attorney general's office issued a scathing report in December, determining that officers violated the rights of detainees and used excessive force during a disturbance there earlier in the year.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a Republican who served as honorary chairman of Trump's reelection campaign in Massachusetts, dismissed Thursday's decision as a "political hit job" by the administration that puts people at risk of being victimized by immigrants.
But local immigrant rights groups that have frequently clashed with Hodgson cheered the decision as long overdue.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU Massachusetts, said Hodgson "carried out the Trump administration's anti-immigrant agenda with zeal."
And Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, head of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the jail, located almost 60 miles south of Boston near Cape Cod, is "notorious for its inhumane and unconstitutional treatment of civil immigration detainees."