WASHINGTON - A government advisory panel recommended Thursday that the Homeland Security Department continue using private, for-profit jails to house immigrants facing deportation.
The panel, part of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, wrote in its first of 14 recommendations that ICE "will continue" to use private jails. The group also recommended that Immigration and Customs Enforcement improve oversight of private jails and try to limit the time detainees are held in county jails to no more than 72 hours.
Several members of the panel objected to the report's overall findings and voted to approve it only after a lengthy discussion about their concerns. One member of the group that wrote the report objected in writing to the conclusion that the government "should, or inevitably must" continue to rely on private jails.
The recommendation to stick with private jails comes months after the Justice Department announced that the Bureau of Prisons would phase out the use of such facilities as contracts expire.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had asked the advisory panel to review the policy amid pressure from critics of the jail system and because of the Justice Department's decision.
Karen Tandy, a Motorola Solutions executive who led the group that reviewed ICE jails and made the recommendations, said the cost of converting the immigration detention system to one that's wholly government run would cost billions of dollars and not be a good use of resources.
She said while the final recommendation is to continue using private jails, she cautioned that the group that reviewed the complex immigration enforcement system had only two months to investigate and review it. She said additional studies should be done to review other components.
ICE said in a statement that the agency will "review and consider the council's recommendations and will implement any changes, as appropriate."
The advisory panel noted that the immigration detention system has evolved over several decades into a private-public system in which only about 10 percent of immigration detainees now are held in government-owned facilities. Even in those places, many day-to-day functions are carried out by contractors.
Critics of the government's use of private jails for immigration detention have argued that the jails are unsafe and don't offer adequate protections for people who face not criminal charges, but rather civil immigration violations and deportation proceedings.
Three people have died in custody since Oct. 1, the most recent last month at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. Fifteen migrants have died at that jail since 2004, according to ICE. This summer the center became the epicenter of a large measles outbreak after some facility workers refused to get vaccinated.
The advisory panel's report cited budget concerns and "the need for realistic capacity to handle sudden increases in detention" as among the reasons for its recommendation. Its authors noted that unlike the Bureau of Prisons, ICE's detention ranks can swell or shrink on a nearly daily basis.
In recent months ICE has seen a spike in the number of immigrants detained and has routinely exceeded 40,000. Congress has approved enough money for the government to maintain 34,000 detention beds.
President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to deport as many as three million immigrants in the country illegally, focusing first on criminals. If he follows through on that and on another promise to detain and quickly deport people caught crossing the border illegally, immigration detention space is likely to continue to be needed.