US sending 1,600 immigration detainees to federal prisons

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO, June 7 (Reuters) - U.S. authorities are transferring into federal prisons about 1,600 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, officials told Reuters on Thursday, in the first large-scale use of federal prisons to hold detainees amid a Trump administration crackdown on people entering the country illegally.

An ICE spokeswoman told Reuters five federal prisons will temporarily take in detainees awaiting civil immigration court hearings, including potential asylum seekers, with one prison in Victorville, California, preparing to house 1,000 people.

President Donald Trump has made his hard-line stance on immigration an integral part of his presidency and has promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to stem the flow of migrants. He has also promised to keep immigrants targeted for deportation locked up “pending the outcome of their removal proceedings.”

Under former President Barack Obama, many immigrants without serious criminal records were allowed to await their court dates while living in the United States. Others were housed in immigration detention facilities or local jails. ICE has used federal prisons in the past but not on this scale, sources said.

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Border Patrol agents are pictured during the official start for the construction of new bollard wall to replace 20-miles of primary vehicle barriers in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, United States April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
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Border Patrol agents keep watch during the official start for the construction of new bollard wall to replace 20-miles of primary vehicle barriers in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, United States April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Border patrol agents briefly rest after seizing 297 pounds of marijuana in a drug bust by the Mexico-U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley sector, near McAllen, Texas, U.S., April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
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A border patrol agent apprehends people who illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. in the Rio Grande Valley sector, near Falfurrias, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
An agent from the US Customs and Border Protection Agency patrols along the border between Santa Teresa, Nuevo Mexico State, in the US, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State, in Mexico, on April 9, 2018 where the US plans to build a 32-km-long steel wall. Mexico is carrying out a sweeping review of its cooperation with the neighbouring United States because of 'blatant' tension with Donald Trump's administration, the foreign minister said Monday. / AFP PHOTO / HERIKA MARTINEZ (Photo credit should read HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
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The new policy drew criticism from immigration advocates and former officials.

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Kevin Landy, a former ICE assistant director responsible for the Office of Detention Policy and Planning under the Obama administration, said the move to house so many detainees at once in federal prisons was “highly unusual” and raises oversight concerns.

“A large percent of ICE detainees have no criminal record and are more vulnerable in a prison setting – security staff and administrators at BOP facilities have spent their careers dealing with hardened criminals serving long sentences for serious felonies, and the procedures and staff training reflect that,” he said. “This sudden mass transfer could result in some serious problems.”

Officials of a prison employees' union said the influx of ICE detainees, who were arrested at the border or elsewhere in the United States by immigration officials, raises questions about prison staffing and safety.

Union leaders at prisons in California, Texas and Washington state who spoke to Reuters said they had little time to prepare for the large intake of detainees.

At Victorville, the prison getting the largest number of people, workers are moving about 500 inmates in a medium-security facility to make space, said John Kostelnik, local president for the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals union.

"There is so much movement going on," said Kostelnik. "Everyone is running around like a chicken without their head."

In addition to Victorville, other prisons that have received or will receive detainees include ones in Washington state, Oregon, Arizona and Texas.

More on detention centers:

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Life inside California's largest immigration detention center
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Life inside California's largest immigration detention center
ICE detainees are seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A meal is seen in a cell for incoming ICE detainees at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Men play dominoes at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Detainees exercise in a recreation area at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Men share a pair of headphones to watch television in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Female detainees read about a hunger strike at the Tacoma immigration detention center as they sit in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A communal area is seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A communal area is seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A razor wire fence surrounds the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A girl waits with visitors in the lobby of the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman lies on a bed in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
ICE detainees walk into the dining area for lunch at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
ICE detainees make phone calls at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A world map is seen on the wall of the visiting area at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The high-risk detainee visiting area is seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
David A. Marin, Field Office Director, Enforcement and Removal Operations, stands at the entrance to the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
ICE detainee possessions are seen in the intake area at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Immigrants sit in a cell for incoming ICE detainees at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An immigrant takes food into a cell for incoming ICE detainees at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Handcuffs for employees to use are seen at the entrance of the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Salvadoran immigrant Roberto Galan, 33, poses for a photo at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An ICE detainee rests his hands on the window of his cell in the segregation wing at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman lies on a bed in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The women's medical room is seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Possessions lie on a bed in a women's dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An ICE detainee lies in his cell in the segregation wing at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Women stand in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "ICE NICHOLSON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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ICE spokeswoman Dani Bennett said ICE is "working to meet the demand for additional immigration detention space" due to a surge in illegal border crossings and a U.S. Department of Justice zero-tolerance policy.

"To meet this need, ICE is collaborating with the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), private detention facility operators and local government agencies," she said in a statement to Reuters.

In April 2018, nearly 51,000 people were apprehended at or near the southern border, up from about 16,000 in the same month a year earlier.

A new agreement between ICE and the Justice Department makes about 1,600 prison beds available and is expected to last 120 days, giving ICE time to secure more space for detainees. It comes amid a crackdown by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on both illegal border crossings and people seeking asylum.

Recently, Sessions said the Justice Department planned to prosecute every person who crosses the border illegally and to separate migrant children from their parents.

Trump in the spring signed a memorandum ending "catch and release," in which illegal immigrants were released from detention while awaiting court hearings.

According to ICE data, the average daily population of detainees in its facilities as of May 26 was 41,134, up from the 2017 daily average of 38,106.

Immigration advocates immediately decried the news of sending detainees to federal penitentiaries.

"Our federal prisons are set up to detain the worst of the worst. They should not be used for immigration purposes," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

“Federal prisons are for hardened criminals. They are not physically set up for immigrant landscapers looking for a job or fleeing violence,” Noorani said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker)

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