Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is expected to make an announcement soon about the city’s practice of holding detainees in the Atlanta City Detention Center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

ICE detainees dwindling in Atlanta jail as contract decision looms

The number of immigrants facing deportation who are being held in Atlanta’s jail has fallen to five from 205 in June, when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order blocking the detention center from taking in any new ones.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that count Wednesday as Bottoms was preparing to announce her decision about the city’s federal contract to hold the agency’s detainees. A City Hall news conference is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Bottoms said in June she would not rule out canceling that arrangement amid enforcement of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which resulted in the separation of many immigrant families on the southwest border.

“As a country, we are better than this,” Bottoms told reporters at a crowded City Hall news conference at the time. “We are better than separating families. These are human beings. These are children. These are mothers. These are fathers. These are families.”

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The city is paid $78 a day for each ICE detainee it holds in the Atlanta City Detention Center through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, collecting $7.5 million through this arrangement for this fiscal year, as of June. That is more than a fifth of the jail’s annual $33 million budget.

Meanwhile, Bottoms has repeated her call to explore selling the city’s jail, citing its declining number of inmates and increasing maintenance costs. As of Wednesday, there were 121 inmates in the jail, including the five ICE detainees. Selling the jail would save city taxpayers millions of dollars, the mayor said. The mayor has already directed City Hall to identify new positions for the jail’s staff.

“We are reimagining what this property could be,” Bottoms said about the jail in a prepared statement last month. “With many big developments going on in the area, the jail itself has become prime real estate. That will certainly have to be weighed along with its potential use as a detention facility for some other jurisdiction.”

Immigrant-rights activists have severely criticized the city for holding ICE detainees. In contrast, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican nominee for governor, said during the GOP primary this summer that the city should honor its “longstanding agreement” to house the detainees, adding: “Public safety – not partisan politics – must always come first.”

Asked about the mayor’s deliberations, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said the city jail represents less 10 percent of ICE’s detention capacity in Georgia. His agency takes advantage of the Atlanta jail’s proximity to federal immigration courts in downtown and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. If the city cancels its arrangement with ICE, the federal agency could instead place its detainees in its detention centers in Folkston, Lumpkin and Ocilla. ICE and the private corrections company that operates the Folkston ICE Processing Center agreed this year to expand that facility by 338 beds.

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