ICE Signs New For-Profit Detention Contracts Days Before California's Ban Begins

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An immigrant detainee makes a call from his 'segregation cell' at the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Updated 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has signed new long-term contracts with three private prison companies to operate — and expand — immigration detention in California. The deals, which were published on a federal procurement website late Friday evening, come just days before a new state law takes effect, outlawing for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities.

The ICE contracts total $6.5 billion and extend for as long as 15 years, much longer than typical immigration detention agreements. The three companies currently run four California detention centers for ICE, with a combined total of roughly 5,200 beds.

The full text of the new contracts was not publicly accessible, but here’s what we know. ICE entered into deals for “security guards and patrol services” as follows:

  • $679 million with Management & Training Corp., for a facility in Calexico, where the company currently operates the Imperial Regional Detention Center;
  • $2.1 billion with Core Civic, Inc., for a facility in San Diego, where the company currently operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center;
  • $2.1 billion with GEO Group, Inc., for a facility in Adelanto (San Bernardino County), where the company currently operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center;
  • $1.6 billion with GEO Group, Inc., for a facility in Bakersfield, where the company currently operates the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center.

In addition, GEO Group’s contracts incorporate the use of three other California prisons it owns, according to a press release the company issued Monday announcing its contracts. Those facilities — two in the Central Valley town of McFarland and another in Adelanto — will add an additional 2,150 beds “as facility annexes,” the statement said.

“We’re pleased to have been able to build on our long-standing partnership with ICE to help the agency meet its need for processing center beds in California, which comply with the Federal government’s performance-based national detention standards,” said George C. Zoley, GEO’s chairman and CEO, according to the press statement.

The company said it expects the contracts to generate more than $200 million a year in revenue and support more than 1,200 jobs.

News of the contracts come just days before a new state law takes effect, aimed at phasing out for-profit prisons and detention centers, federal authorities could enter into multi-million dollar contracts with private companies to continue jailing thousands of immigrants in California.

The new California law, AB 32, is set to take effect Jan. 1.

California immigrant advocates said ICE is violating the spirit of that law and called on state officials to take action to block the deals.

"These multi-billion dollar contracts represent the corrupt and illicit partnership between ICE, a rogue agency that feels it is above the law, and private corporations with a business model centered on locking up immigrants and people of color,” said Jackie Gonzalez, policy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates. “They have no place in California."

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office declined to comment on whether the attorney general was considering taking action.

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In a separate critique, California’s two U.S. senators and 19 Democratic members of Congress raised their own concerns about ICE’s process to enter into detention contracts.

In a Nov. 14 letter to ICE, they wrote that the agency’s Oct. 16 “streamlined” solicitation and 15-year contract term could violate federal procurement laws, which are designed to protect taxpayer dollars by promoting competition among potential vendors, except under narrowly defined circumstances.

“ICE has a history of consistently relying on the exceptions to full and open competition, raising concerns as to whether such contracts have been awarded in a proper manner,” wrote the lawmakers.

Asked about its latest solicitation for detention services in California, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said the agency had followed the law.

ICE “remains compliant with federal contract and acquisition regulations as we advertise opportunity notices and subsequently implement the decision process,” said Hughes.

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The lawmakers also requested that, within 30 days, ICE provide them with documents related to the solicitation and any communications on AB 32, including messages between federal officials and the companies running ICE detention centers in California: GEO Group Inc; CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation.

As of this week, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) had not yet received such information.

“Senator Harris will continue to monitor developments and determine potential next steps involving oversight work in the state,” said Meaghan Lynch, a spokeswoman for Harris.

AB 32 bars for-profit companies from operating immigration detention facilities after their current contracts with ICE expire. The law also prohibits the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from entering or renewing contracts with private corporations to run prisons.

Three for-profit immigration detention centers impacted by AB 32 — Adelanto, in the San Bernardino County town of Adelanto; Imperial Regional, in Calexico; and Mesa Verde, in Bakersfield — have contracts with ICE that end in 2020. The contract of a fourth facility, Otay Mesa, near San Diego, expires in 2023.

The GEO Group and MTC did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokeswoman for CoreCivic said questions about contracts should be directed to ICE.

Local communities in California, such as Adelanto, have long depended on the tax revenue and hundreds of jobs generated by detention facilities. State lawmakers whose districts include the Adelanto ICE Processing Center and the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility did not return requests for comment about the new state law.

A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.
A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. (John Moore/Getty Images)

As in previous statements by ICE officials, Hughes warned that AB 32 would likely result in the agency detaining California-based immigrants in other states, further away from their families and loved ones, and questioned the intent of the law.

“The idea that a state law can bind the hands of a federal law enforcement agency managing a national network of detention facilities is wrong,” said Hughes. “Policy makers who strive to make it more difficult to remove dangerous criminal aliens and aim to stop the cooperation of local officials and business partners, harm the very communities whose welfare they have sworn to protect.”

But Jackie Gonzalez, co-founder of Immigrant Defense Advocates, said the law’s restriction on immigration detention could lead ICE to exercise its discretion and release more immigrants, such as those without criminal records, to await their court hearings at home.

Non-criminals accounted for the majority of ICE detentions between 2015 and 2018, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Gonzalez, who was involved in crafting AB 32, said the new law does not regulate ICE, and the federal government could still take over private detention facilities in the state and run them itself.

“It bans all for-profit detention in the state of California in part because of the inhumane and dangerous conditions which permeate those facilities,” said Gonzalez. “The state has the right to regulate an industry particularly when it does so to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its residents.”

Between Oct. 2015 and June 2018, ICE inspectors found thousands of violations of the agency’s own detention standards at facilities throughout the country, including those run by private companies, according to a report earlier this year by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“Instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties, ICE issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from having to comply with certain detention standards,” reads the OIG report.

Last Friday, faith leaders, legal service providers and former immigration detainees with the Dignity Not Detention coalition held candles and signs before ICE’s offices in San Francisco, calling for Gov. Newsom and Attorney General Becerra to defend AB 32.

“The law to prohibit private prisons and detention centers is a critical step in our state to end the immoral profit-making off of human suffering,” said Rev. Deborah Lee, who directs the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

KQED Immigration Editor Tyche Hendricks contributed to this report.