New Report Outlines Vision for a Just Transition from Immigration Detention Economies

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Washington, DCCommunities Not Cages: A Just Transition from Immigration Detention Economies, a new report from Detention Watch Network, examines the role of immigration detention in local economies and outlines a vision for a just transition away from economies dependent on detention centers. The report compiles research on prisons, economic development, and trend lines in adult and youth incarceration around the country, and draws on interviews with more than 20 community organizers, advocates, lawyers, and experts on immigration detention and adult and juvenile prison systems. 

Immigration detention reached its height in Fiscal Year 2019 when the U.S. government detained a record number of people — more than 50,000 on an average day — and spent nearly $3.2 billion, another record, on detention alone. Trump opened over 40 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers throughout his administration. ICE detention centers are deeply harmful and at times deadly to people in detention and their loved ones — a fact that has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. The report outlines a path towards immediately downsizing the detention system while supporting communities transition away from detention economies.

Recommendations outlined in the report, are:

  • The Biden Administration and Congress should set up a $1 billion Just Transition Economic Development Fund, which would use cost—savings from reduced spending on detention to provide grants to communities transitioning away from economies dependent on federal detention. The multi-year fund should be housed outside of the Department of Homeland Security and be guided by an advisory committee of formerly detained people, economic development advisors, and elected and community leaders. 
  • The Biden administration should begin phasing out the use of immigration detention by immediately ending detention center contracts and halting expansion efforts. 
  • The Biden administration and Congress should significantly reduce immigration detention funding.
  • The Biden administration should end detention at the border by decriminalizing migration and restoring access to asylum.

“The Just Transition Economic Development Fund will help communities transition away from detention economies while investing in economic development opportunities not tied to other punitive forms of infrastructure,” said Setareh Ghandehari, Advocacy Director at Detention Watch Network. “The Biden administration must also release people in detention and allow them to navigate their immigration cases in community, while placing a moratorium on new detentions,  and implementing policies that begin to phase out the use of immigration detention completely.”

The U.S. immigration detention system is designed to incentivize the incarceration of immigrants as a money making scheme for corporations and local governments. While little published research examines the economic impact of immigration detention centers on local communities, economic concerns remain a key barrier to closing detention centers. However, ample research over the course of nearly 20 years demonstrates that prisons more broadly do not foster economic growth, especially in persistently poor communities. In fact, prison construction correlates with lower increases in employment, retail sales, household wages, housing units, and home values as compared to towns without prisons. 

“Prison developers have often pitched detention centers to struggling communities as economic engines, but there is no evidence they actually create long-term positive development,” said Bob Libal, who authored Community Not Cages. “Creating a transition plan away from detention economies creates a path for more healthy communities not dependent on the harm caused by immigration detention centers.”  

In many ways, ICE has been an outlier with its expanding detention system. Between 2010 and 2019, the cumulative state prison population declined by more than 10 percent while the federal prison population declined by more than 15 percent.  During the same time period, the ICE detention population increased by more than 56 percent.  

"Many states and the federal government have reduced their adult and youth prison populations over the past decade,” said Nicole Porter, Director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project. “In fact, some states have closed prisons and youth detention facilities and even successfully converted them away from punitive institutions."

For-profit prison corporations have made immigration detention a cornerstone of their business models. By 2020, 81 percent of all immigrants in detention were locked up in for-profit facilities. CoreCivic and GEO Group (GEO) are the two publicly traded corporations that operate most of ICE's for-profit detention beds. In 2019, together CoreCivic and GEO brought in more than $1.2 billion in revenue from ICE contracts, with approximately 29 percent of each company’s revenue coming from ICE.

“The private prison companies operating ICE detention centers are a dangerous presence in my and other communities. They take advantage of communities without providing promised benefits,” said Jose Asuncion, Frio County Commissioner. “They have convinced localities like mine to expand utilities and become dependent on the taxes, utility payments, and jobs centered around the detention centers. We need a serious conversation about transitioning away from detention centers. And that means we need to help communities pay their bills and develop a plan for post-detention economic development opportunities.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people detained by ICE fell to lows not seen in recent years. ICE must continue to reduce its detained population and implement policies that will begin to shrink the abusive system. To do so, the Biden Administration should significantly reduce its expenditures on detention funding, end contracts with private prisons corporations and state, local and county governments, and create a multi-year Just Transition Economic Development Fund to provide incentives for communities to move away from economies dependent on the existence of immigration detention.   

Read the report: Communities Not Cages: A Just Transition from Immigration Detention Economies


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.