Still, Johnson maintained that more capacity in immigration detention centers is not the answer to rising migration levels.
“There’s not enough beds, you know, out in the private sector to detain our way out of this situation,” Johnson said.
Johnson also fielded concerns from Democrats over conditions and oversight efforts at the agency’s sprawling network of detention centers across the country.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., raised concerns about access to counsel for immigrants in detention, citing instances in which phones are not located in confidential areas or have limited minutes.
Johnson said this issue is “certainly something that we’re aware of” but that it “is not all that prevalent in most of our facilities.”
Johnson previously signed onto a report, submitted to Congress earlier this year and obtained by CQ Roll Call, that claimed access to counsel continued “unabated” in ICE detention facilities during the pandemic — a characterization legal service providers vigorously dispute.
Responding to questions from Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., Johnson confirmed the agency’s policy under the Biden administration is not to detain immigrants who are pregnant or nursing and that “only in very rare occasions would anyone stay in custody for an extended period of time.”
But he was unable to answer Underwood’s question on access to COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for those pregnant people who are in immigration detention, saying he had “no idea whether the vaccine is even acceptable for those that are pregnant.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all adults, including those who are pregnant, get vaccinated.
And in one testy exchange with Roybal-Allard, Johnson doubled down on ICE’s disagreement with a recent inspector general report that excoriated ICE for substandard conditions at a New Mexico detention center.
The March report found “excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions” — including clogged toilets, mold and water leaks — along with severe staffing shortages, and called for the immediate transfer of individuals from the facility.
In a striking response to that report, ICE’s acting chief of staff Jason Houser said ICE had “serious concerns about the accuracy and integrity” of the report and claimed a photo contained therein was “staged” and “knowingly given a false description.”
Johnson told lawmakers Tuesday the agency continues to disagree with the inspector general’s recommendations.
Moreover, he said ICE’s own investigators conducted a review of the facility just before the inspector general’s visit and rated it “excellent.”
“You’re telling me that (ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight) came out with a rating of excellence at the same time?” Roybal-Allard said, sounding incredulous. She told Johnson after her questioning that she “would like to follow up on this review.”
Caroline Simon contributed to this report.©2022 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Visit cqrollcall.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.