Federal immigration officials will resume locking up migrants in a New Mexico jail in spite of the federal government’s own recommendation to immediately relocate everyone there due to its “egregious” conditions.
Attorneys, former inmates and the federal government alike have denounced the Torrance County Detention Facility for the better part of this year. When federal officials conducted a surprise inspection in February, they issued a first-of-its-kind “management alert,” saying conditions were so bad that everyone inside should be immediately removed. Calls for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release or relocate detainees increased after an asylum-seeking migrant committed suicide in August.
ICE not only failed to heed the “management alert,” but on Friday, it informed immigrant rights groups and attorneys of its decision to send even more migrants to the facility. In the notification, which was reviewed by Searchlight New Mexico, ICE said it was making the decision after reviewing the August suicide and determining that the facility was “not contributory to the detainee’s death.”
The decision comes just weeks after another detained, asylum-seeking migrant’s suicide attempt. Attorneys and immigrant advocates immediately blasted the agency’s decision. “There’s going to be more human suffering, more suicide attempts and, unfortunately, more deaths,” said Sophia Genovese, senior attorney for the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
The decision also comes three weeks after a Searchlight story revealed that ICE was paying nearly $2 million per month to keep just 15 asylum-seeking migrants locked up in the privately owned and operated jail about an hour southeast of Albuquerque. The migrant population has since fallen to nine.
Advocacy groups are bracing for the detention facility’s population to swell as an emergency health order, known as Title 42, is set to end Wednesday. Border and immigration agents have used the order, invoked by former President Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic, to expel migrants more easily. The jail can hold up to 842 migrants but averaged 152 in 2021, according to a federal report.
CoreCivic, the jail’s private owner and operator, declined to comment and deferred questions to ICE.
A scathing federal report and mounting pressure to shut down
For months, pressure has been mounting to shut down the facility. A 50-page September report by federal inspectors noted mold and excrement throughout the facility and warned that an understaffed medical unit was impacting “the level of care detainees received for suicide watch.”
In November, 10 migrants, who dubbed themselves Los Últimos Guerreros (The Last Warriors), wrote an open letter decrying the toll that isolation was taking on their mental health.
“In the hole we have to be practically naked because they only give us a hospital gown. We have to sleep on the concrete, and that’s only if you can sleep … the lights are on all the night,” they wrote. “In order to get out of the hole, we have to lie and say that the thoughts of self-harm have passed. We have to say that we have recovered, when in reality we leave worse than when we entered.”
New Mexico’s Congressional delegation has also called on ICE to cancel its contract with CoreCivic and free or transfer the remaining migrants. In an October letter, U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján decried the “grievous living conditions” and urged ICE Acting Director Tae D. Johnson to transfer or release the few remaining detainees.