U.S. senators from California and Massachusetts have joined New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján in calling for the closure of a Torrance County immigration detention center.
The lawmakers — including California’s Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, all Democrats — asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Tae D. Johnson to immediately end the government’s contract with private operator CoreCivic, citing inhumane conditions and the recent suicide of a detainee at the Estancia facility.
“Grievous living conditions, critical staffing shortages and lack of access to detainee services ... have been consistently documented and shown to be widespread, despite your agency’s assurances to the contrary,” the senators wrote in a letter to Johnson. “This neglect puts those individuals who remain in the facility in unconscionable circumstances.”
The facility has an 800-person capacity, but only 26 men were still living there as of Thursday, according to the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
It is one of three privately run operations in New Mexico that hold immigrant detainees, most of whom cross into the U.S. near El Paso in hopes of being granted asylum.
The Torrance County site has come under fire twice in the last year from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, which issued reports in March and September detailing subpar living conditions and lack of access to medical, legal and language services and had called for an “immediate removal of all detainees.”
The population was reduced over the past year in part due to short staffing. It fell to 77 last month after ICE stopped transferring in new detainees following the reported suicide in August of a 23-year-old Brazilian, according to advocates. The numbers recently were reduced again after transfers and deportations.
“Despite being paid about $2 million a month for detaining people on behalf of the federal government thanks to a 505-bed guaranteed minimum, CoreCivic has been wholly unable to meet its contractually obligated staffing levels,” the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico reported in September.
About 10 people were deported out of the facility last week, New Mexico Immigrant Law Center senior attorney Sophia Genovese said. She said the move was an effort by officials to quash an investigation into to a recent hunger strike by detainees protesting poor conditions.
“They are trying to sweep all of this under the rug, and the way you silence witnesses is by deporting them,” Genovese said. “We are grateful the lawmakers have taken notice of the serious situation at Torrance and are demanding action. We are ready for this contract to be canceled.”
The senators’ letter asks Johnson to deport, release or transfer the men. Many hail from Turkey, Columbia and Ecuador, according to a September report.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not respond to an email The New Mexican sent to the agency’s media line seeking comment. CoreCivic — which operates the facility via its contract with ICE — also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Company spokesman Matthew Davio wrote in an email last week that CoreCivic disagrees with the Office of the Inspector General’s findings and recommendation for removal of detainees.