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In a Desperate Search for Detention Space, the U.S. Moves 1,600 Immigrants to Federal Prisons

Over the weekend, 1,600 detainees at the United States border were transferred to federal prisons.

This is yet another consequence of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy: Federal officials have found that current detention infrastructure can no longer house the overwhelming number of people being detained at the border.

Though the U.S. has consistently detained people intending to illegally cross its borders, officials had not seen this type of overflow in detention centers until now because of their reliance on the "catch and release" method: In the past, many people attempting to cross the border would simply be detained and subsequently sent back across the border.

Now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is enacting a policy that requires the prosecution of everyone who crosses the border illegally. The "zero tolerance" approach has created an extreme backlog of immigrants who must await their trials.

Immigration activists are critical of the transfer of detainees to federal prisons because these detainees have not yet been charged with any civil offense. Normally, federal prisons house people who have committed criminal offenses like homicide or other crimes that receive sentences of over a year.

"Federal prisons are for hardened criminals," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., told Reuters. "They are not physically set up for immigrant landscapers looking for a job or fleeing violence."

Others criticize the severe physical separation of some people from family members and children they may leave behind near ports of entry.

One prison in Victorville, California, will house 1,000 people. Other prisons that have or will receive detainees are located in Arizona, Oregon, Texas, and Washington State.