Update, Sept. 15, 2017
The bill passed the state Senate and Assembly and now goes to the governor who has until Oct. 15 to decide whether to enact it into law.
Update, Sept. 8, 2017
California's legislators amended a bill on Friday that would have phased out immigration detention contracts at private prisons. Now, the bill, SB 29, would only bar local governments from renewing their contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they sought to expand the number of beds.
There are four privately run immigration detention facilities in California: Adelanto Correctional Facility north of San Bernardino, Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego and the Imperial Regional Detention Facility south of Calexico. About 3,950 people were detained in those facilities on an average day in fiscal year 2017, according to data from ICE.
The bill would still prohibit local governments from entering into new contracts with ICE to hold detainees after Jan. 1, 2018. It also would hold the facilities to a higher standard of care.
Original post, May 5, 2017
Since Inauguration Day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained thousands of undocumented immigrants across the country. But now the administration might have to scale back.
The new budget bill authorizes spending for only about 5,000 new detention beds and 100 additional immigration officers throughout the United States. Earlier this year, President Trump had asked for far more.
At the same time, state legislators in California are also finding new ways to thwart detention expansion.
“The Trump administration and their stated goal to deport millions of U.S. residents would require a mass expansion of detention centers,” says California state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). “California would obviously be one of the major states that would be impacted.”
Lara has reintroduced a bill that would end private prison contracts in four California cities and would hold local counties and cities to a higher set of detention standards. But opponents say his plan would cost hundreds of jobs, while immigrant detainees would just go elsewhere.
Immigration and the Budget Battle
Following media reports that the Trump administration was going to scrap Obama-era detention standards, congressional leaders are making funding for ICE contingent on keeping them.
The Obama administration established the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards for ICE to ensure that people awaiting their day in immigration court have access to legal services, medical and mental health care, recreation and a complaint process.
ICE recently closed the division in charge of implementing those standards: the Office of Detention Policy and Planning. Kevin Landy, an Obama appointee, used to direct that work.
“ICE detainees are powerless,” says Landy. “I think the federal government in this case needs to step up and make sure that it’s taking adequate care of the otherwise powerless people that it’s responsible for.”
Landy worries about any easing of standards at a time when the federal government is arresting more immigrants who have no history of crime. He says he’s especially concerned because “individuals with no criminal convictions are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual assault, especially when you're housing them in facilities that also detain convicted criminals.”
Detention facilities run by private companies and local jails would have to adhere to the 2011 standards if they significantly modify their current contracts or sign new ones.
Currently, about two-thirds of adult detainees are covered by the higher 2011 standards, mostly at large private prisons. Some local jails are allowed to follow a looser set of rules. On an average day in November 40,875 people were detained by ICE across the country.
ICE Says Standards Are Sufficient
In a statement, spokeswoman Danielle Bennett wrote “detainees in ICE custody reside in safe and secure environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement”
Responding to questions about whether the agency is loosening detention standards, Bennett acknowledges that officials are “examining a variety of detention models” to expand the system.
“As new options are explored, ICE’s commitment to maintaining excellent facilities and providing first-class medical care to those in our custody remains unchanged.”
Mary Small, policy director at the Detention Watch Network, says the current administration has shown it’s not too concerned about conditions for immigrants.
“They’ve already signaled to their detention contractors that they don’t take this stuff seriously and it’s not important to them,” Small says. “And so they’ve given folks free rein to cut corners.”
In fact, none of the California jails detaining immigrants for ICE have agreed to meet the agency’s 2011 level of care.
Jails in Contra Costa, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino and Yuba counties all hold long-standing contracts with ICE, along with a handful of city jails in Los Angeles County.
Data from ICE. Fiscal year 2016 ran from Oct.1 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016. | Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED
In fiscal year 2016 those jails combined held on average nearly 1,400 immigrants a day, with thousands more passing through facilities every year, according to data from ICE.
In exchange, the counties and cities receive millions of dollars from ICE.
State Senator Says California Jails Must Improve Conditions
California jails are facing complaints, even lawsuits, for allegedly neglecting or abusing detainees and violating their due process rights.
In the most recent example, ICE inspectors found dirty moldy facilities at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange County, and rotten meat being served to detainees.
Sen. Lara says the jails must do better. His bill would force them to do so.
“Access to medication, being able to call an attorney, call family or a friend, to let them know where they are housed — these are all minimum rights that any person that’s incarcerated currently has,” says Lara. “But not if you’re an immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker in a detention center in California.”
Cory Salzillo, with the California State Sheriffs' Association, says it’s not the state’s job. ICE sets the standards for immigrant detainees with local jails, and those standards are written into legally binding contracts.
Salzillo says that as long as the federal government continues to detain immigrants, they have to go somewhere.
“Say the Contra Costa beds went away for whatever reason, then those people are ostensibly going to be housed in Yuba or Sacramento or Orange County or a private facility, or out of state. You squeeze a water balloon and it’s going to show up somewhere else.”
Those contracts are also very financially appealing to local municipalities, according to Daniel Stagemen, research director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Detentions are a really good way to fill those budget holes,” he says. “The temptation of this funding is going to be very difficult for some of these jurisdictions to resist.”
Ending Private Prison Contracts
But Lara’s bill would end some of those contracts.
The state senator says he is opposed to how some California cities contract with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants in facilities run by private companies.
“Immigration detention centers operate solely for the purpose to house immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, which also make the local jurisdictions money, and I feel it's just morally wrong for us to do that,” he says.
If the bill passes, four California cities would be impacted: Adelanto, Calexico, Bakersfield and San Diego.
In the high desert of Southern California, Adelanto is known as a prison town. It has more detention facilities than supermarkets.
For years Adelanto has depended on revenue from detention. The city of almost 33,000 receives about $4 million a month from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detainees.
From the outside, Adelanto Detention Facility looks like a business park rising from the sand, rocks and scrub. It’s California’s biggest immigration detention facility, and can hold as many as 1,940 people.
While the city of Adelanto holds the contract with ICE for the immigration detention facility, the private prison company GEO Group owns and operates it. In fact, GEO Group owns and operates two out of the three penitentiaries within the city limits.
“We have a great rapport with GEO,” says City Councilman John “Bug” Woodard. “They do a great job for our country, for our state, for our city.”
Advocates Troubled by Conditions at Adelanto Detention Facility
But immigration advocates say they are very concerned about conditions at the Adelanto Detention Facility.
In the last five years, five people have died while detained at the Adelanto Detention Facility. Two of them died in the last six weeks.
ICE’s own investigators found problems at the facility, including health care delays, poor record keeping and failures to properly report sexual assaults.
In a federal investigation into one of the California deaths, inspectors noted that the person who died had waited more than a year to see a specialist, that the high turnover of medical staff led to inadequate care and that a dearth of laboratory services led to delays in treatment.
Independent medical experts for Human Rights Watch analyzing ICE's investigation found that the man probably suffered from the symptoms of cancer for two years.*
Advocate Mary Small says that her organization has received a wide range of complaints about the facility.
“Everything from retaliatory punishment against people for demanding access to the law library and demanding the right to copy their legal documents, to some pretty serious medical complaints,” Small says.
A New Kind of Economy?
A new majority on the City Council is pushing a different kind of business: Marijuana. Last year Adelanto became one of the first places in California to legalize commercially grown weed, issuing dozens of permits.
Now, investors and celebrities like Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong), Ky-Mani Marley, one of Bob Marley’s sons, and other high-profile musicians and athletes are stopping in the little city off Highway 395. Taxes could potentially provide more than $1 million a month to Adelanto.
The City Council is weighing offers for land for marijuana cultivation and from the GEO Group, Woodard says.
Last year an identical bill passed the state Assembly and Senate. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying he wanted to see if the Department of Homeland Security would end for-profit contracts. At the time, the Obama administration was phasing out private prison contracts for federal detainees. Now, the Trump administration is on the opposite course. GEO Group’s stock is up 57 percent since January.
Woodard says that if Lara’s first bill had passed, it would have been disastrous for Adelanto.
“This city would be gone,” Woodard says. “You know we gotta pay for pensions and employees, I mean they would have to let off even more employees.”
The GEO detention facilities create about 500 full- and part-time jobs, Woodard wrote in a letter to the senator. The city also receives hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from property, sales and use taxes, an administration fee and funding for an additional law enforcement officer.
Lara thinks his bill will succeed this time because of Trump.
“We're in a completely different environment now,” Lara says.
Adelanto wouldn’t immediately lose its contract if SB 29 is signed into law. The bill phases out the contracts as they come up for renewal.
“The middle ground here is that we provide still an avenue for the detention of immigrants at the county level, where we can protect our rights, and we phase out with time the centers,” Lara says.
The state Senate is set to vote at the end of May.
*This story was updated on May 8, 2017 with more information from a report by Human Rights Watch.