WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Biden administration to close one of its privately run immigration detention centers after a Brazilian asylum seeker killed himself while he was being held in the New Mexico facility.
The Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, N.M., which houses about 160 people, has been under scrutiny for months. In an unusual step earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general issued an alert calling for the Biden administration to relocate the detainees immediately.
The A.C.L.U. is now raising new concerns after it obtained government records that it says support claims that conditions there are “atrocious.” The records, which were provided to The New York Times, describe structural issues with the building and complaints by detainees that they could not reach their lawyers and that the drinking water was making them sick.
The situation at Torrance revives a long-running debate over detaining immigrants — many of whom are asylum seekers — and the government’s reliance on the private prison industry to house tens of thousands of them at any given time.
Lawyers familiar with the Brazilian asylum seeker’s case say the 23-year-old, Kesley Vial, killed himself in August after months of incarceration at Torrance, where he struggled to obtain basic information from officials about his case. It was the third death of a detainee in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in the past year. His death is still under agency review.
“We have been telling ICE and CoreCivic that Torrance is a horrible place, that something bad could happen,” said Casey Mangan, a lawyer with an immigration advocacy organization who regularly works with detainees at Torrance. “Unfortunately, that is what happened.”
ICE officials disputed the A.C.L.U.’s characterization of the conditions at Torrance, saying the detention center meets the standards mandated by the federal government — standards that immigration activists say are far too low.
More on U.S. Immigration
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- Fixing ‘a Very Broken System’: By making a few changes to the asylum process in the United States, the Biden administration hopes to chip away at a massive backlog of immigration cases.
- An Immigration Showdown: Republican governors are increasingly deploying a tactic that involves sending migrants to places like Washington, New York and Massachusetts to provoke outrage over record arrivals at the border.
- Starting a New Life: While many migrants recently sent to Democratic strongholds have been left at least temporarily homeless, some are already employed and achieving some measure of stability.
“If those standards and requirements are not met, ICE will terminate the agreement for use of the facility,” said Jason Houser, the agency’s chief of staff. Torrance is run by the for-profit prison company, CoreCivic, which also said the facility meets federal standards.
Immigration detention is just one piece of a larger debate about who should be allowed into the United States to seek refuge and work. The actions of Republican governors — Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida — to bus or fly migrants across the country, a political stunt to try to score points on immigration in the midterm elections, have drawn even more attention to the issue.
Complaints about the conditions at the detention facilities have persisted for years, prompting more and more layers of oversight. But ICE consistently reports that nearly all of its detention facilities comply with national standards.
President Biden has promised to end prolonged detention of immigrants. Since he has been in office, he has stopped housing or reduced the number of immigrants at six facilities that for years had drawn concerns from human rights advocates and government investigators. The administration also stopped detaining immigrant families, and Mr. Biden asked for 9,000 fewer immigrant detention beds in his latest budget request.
Many advocates do not believe immigrants should be detained at all. Short of that, they say immigrants should not be held in privately run facilities that profit off incarceration. Others, including many Republicans, argue that more people should be detained.
But there is simply not enough space to detain all the people coming across the border. As of Thursday, ICE held 25,392 immigrants in detention centers. About 80 percent of them are in privately run facilities, according to the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants.
Many more are either expelled or released into the country while they await court hearings that could take years to come up.
Torrance, like many of ICE’s detention centers, is in a remote part of the country, making it difficult for immigration officials and lawyers to make regular visits and speak with detainees about their cases.
The New Mexico branch of the A.C.L.U. and another advocacy group, the Innovation Law Lab, recently obtained documents through a public records request, including maintenance logs and staffing information, that lawyers say back up earlier warnings.
One of the records documented more than 2,000 maintenance orders between August 2021 and July of this year for issues such as clogged or overflowing toilets, a lack of hot water and other problems related to the physical structure of the building, which is more than 30 years old.
“CoreCivic’s own records show that these serious health and safety issues have long been well-known,” said Rebecca Sheff, a senior lawyer with the A.C.L.U.’s New Mexico branch.
Lawyers for detainees said they find it difficult to arrange meetings with their Torrance clients to address basic issues about their cases. Phone calls are often disconnected. And when they did speak to detainees, they heard the same complaints about structural issues with the building and drinking water that they believed made them feel sick. And there have been consistent reports of the facility being understaffed.
ICE’s chief of staff, Mr. Houser, visited the facility earlier this month and said he drank the water and did not feel sick. An ICE spokeswoman said that detainees at Torrance are given 130 free phone minutes a week in 10-minute increments, which could explain why calls are dropped.
ICE oversees 178 facilities — most of them run by private companies or county jails — across the country that detain undocumented immigrants.
Even though there are only about 160 immigrants in the Torrance facility, ICE is contractually obligated to pay CoreCivic for a minimum of 505 beds a day. The practice of paying for unused beds has been used for years. The Government Accountability Office faulted the Trump administration for wasting millions of dollars a day on unused beds.
Still, many see it as a waste of money that lines the pockets of an industry Mr. Biden has made clear he does not support.
“It is a massive misuse of taxpayer dollars,” said Representative Melanie Stansbury, Democrat of New Mexico, whose district includes Torrance.