Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on March 25 that it will stop detaining immigrants at the Etowah County Jail in Gadsden, Alabama. The facility had become infamous as “one of the worst” in the country. On average, the jail holds about 50 detained immigrants daily, and it’s ICE’s only facility in the state. The detainees’ future remains unclear, and advocates are fighting to prevent them being moved to other ICE facilities or deported.
“ICE has 30 days to process the paperwork and get out of there, and we’re not celebrating until that happens,” Fábio Melo, a local organizer with the Shut Down Etowah Campaign, told Filter. “We’re happy but we’re very cautious right now because we know politics can be played and change everything.”
Melo can’t explain why ICE decided now to cancel the contract, but he credited the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—with authority over ICE—as seeming open to change. Meanwhile, President Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget request to Congress—released just days after the announcement—seeks to reduce ICE immigrant detention capacity by over a quarter, to a maximum of 25,000 immigrants held daily.
Asked by Filter what will happen to immigrants currently held in Etowah County, ICE Public Affairs Officer Sarah Loicano simply said, “Due to operational security, ICE does not comment on or confirm details on individual movements or any potential future removal operations … As soon as we have additional information about timelines or relocations, we will be sure to let you know.”
Separately, ICE explained in an announcement, “The Etowah County Detention Center has a long history of serious deficiencies identified during facility inspections and is of limited operational significance to the agency.”
ICE also said it will “reduce” its use of three other facilities located in the southern US—Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida; Alamance County Detention Center in Graham, North Carolina; and Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Lousiana. The agency cited both lack of need and concerning conditions at the different facilities.
Early on, the facility earned a reputation for abuse of immigrants’ legal rights.
Gadsden is about one hour northeast of Birmingham, in a predominantly rural county. Through contracts with federal agencies including ICE, the Etowah County Jail has detained immigrants for about 25 years (ICE was formed in 2003). ICE currently rents a total of 400 beds from the jail, and pays the county $45 per immigrant detainee per day. Of 97 total jail employees, 40 work just on immigrant detention.
Early on, the facility earned a reputation for abuse of immigrants’ legal rights. Its rural location, hours away from courts and ICE field offices, also created headaches for detainees, lawyers and even ICE employees. In 2010, ICE tried to end the contract and relocate closer to major cities. But elected Etowah County officials complained to Alabama’s members of Congress, and they successfully pressured ICE to back down.
But scrutiny of the Etowah jail, even within the federal government, continued. In May 2015, DHS’s civil rights office sent a classified memo to ICE, urging it to close the jail. It cited ICE’s failure to respond to problems the office had investigated for over 10 years. At that time, 50 new complaints were under investigation. The memo was disclosed in 2016—it took legal action from immigrant activists for its contents, including expert evidence on conditions in the jail, to be made public—but DHS failed to close the facility.
A July 2015 letter to ICE and DHS from Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) detailed human rights abuses at the Etowah jail. They include illegally detaining immigrants beyond what the law requires, ignoring life-threatening illnesses and injuries, and ICE agents beating immigrants to force them into signing travel documents. Detained immigrants have reported being given spoiled vegetables and meat, or being starved.
In a May 2021 letter to DHS, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged the Biden administration to shut down facilities including the Etowah County Jail, citing its failure to protect detainees from spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton reportedly wasn’t told about the ICE closure ahead of time, and firmly denied any concerns over conditions in the jail. There were 17 detained immigrants the day of ICE’s announcement, and Sheriff Horton said ICE had scheduled another 135 immigrants to be sent to the facility.
So what will happen now to immigrants currently detained at Etowah? We don’t know. ICE said it will “begin preparations, including the relocation of ICE personnel as needed and the transfer of detained noncitizens whose continued detention remains necessary”.
The prospect of people simply being moved to another facility is concerning when, as Filter has reported, the majority of people in immigrant detention either have no criminal record at all, or only petty and misdemeanor convictions. Detaining tens of thousands of immigrants in ICE facilities with horrendous human rights abuses does not help keep the country safe.
“We want a path to citizenship for everybody that’s here in this country right now. That’s where we go next in this fight.”
In a joint statement, immigrant rights advocates working to shut down the Etowah County jail called on the Biden administration to close it, and the three other facilities mentioned in ICE’s statement, immediately—and ultimately, to phase out immigrant detention in the US. They demanded any immigrants held by Etowah County be released to their families and loved ones to address their immigration cases.
“This is bread crumbs the government is throwing at us, we can’t be happy about that,” Melo said. “We want a path to citizenship for everybody that’s here in this country right now. Whether people like it or not, the economy is run by immigrants … it’s nothing more than fair for immigrants to get what they deserve. That’s where we go next in this fight.”