California Defies Federal Mandate to Expand Immigration Detention Centers

At a time when the White House is vowing to increase the federal government's capacity to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants, the California legislature is moving in the opposite direction.

On Thursday, state lawmakers are expected to ratify a $183-billion spending package that includes provisions — known as "trailer bill language" — which, if approved, could dramatically reduce the availability of space in local jails to house detainees on violations of immigration law and create state oversight of immigration detention centers.

The inmates, many of whom have never been convicted of a crime, are held there while they await deportation or a hearing to determine their legal status.

Senator Ricardo Lara announced the proposals at a press conference of lawmakers on Tuesday.

"We, for the first time, have switched the level of oversight to the Department of Justice," the Democrat from Bell Gardens said. "And we also now, for the first time, are going to prohibit cities and counties from entering into contracts to detain immigrants or unaccompanied minors and not allow them to expand existing contracts to hold more people."

The bill states that the new restrictions, including the state oversight, would go into effect immediately upon the bill's approval and remain in effect until 2027. Sen. Lara said that the proposals have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Supporters of the bill say it would make California the first state in the country to create public oversight of immigrant detention and the first to restrict the cooperation of local governments and law-enforcement with federal immigration detention.

"No other state law in the country has ever called for a moratorium on immigration detention or given any power to any state agency to monitor immigration detention facilities," says Christina Fialho, the co-founder and co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a nonprofit in San Francisco that helped draft the bill. "We’re feeling confident it will pass on Thursday."

Front entrance of the Adelanto Detention Center.
Front entrance of the Adelanto Detention Center.

If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill would make the office of Attorney General Xavier Becerra responsible for monitoring a broad range of issues for inmates, including due process and health care at detention centers throughout the state. This will cover both city and county-run detention facilities as well as private detention facilities like Adelanto and Otay Mesa. The Attorney General's office would begin its review process later this year and produce a comprehensive report available to the public by March 2019.

Virginia C. Kice, western regional communications director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an emailed statement that the agency provides several layers of oversight and that it continues to follow the national detention standards issued in 2011.

“Placing limitations on ICE’s detention options here in California won’t prevent the agency from detaining immigration violators," Kice said. "It will simply mean ICE will have to transfer individuals encountered in California to detention facilities outside the state, at a greater distance from their family, friends, and legal representatives.”

Michael Soller, communications director for Sen. Lara, says that ICE has a duty to protect the legal rights of inmates and allow for family visitation, regardless of the new legislation.

"There's a number of things they have to continue to do under their standards, and will have to continue to do regardless of this," Soller says.

According to Sen. Lara's office, the current proposal would fund $1 million for the Attorney General's oversight duties in the first year.

Sen. Lara made reference in his remarks to nine reported deaths of inmates in immigration detention nationwide since the start of the year. Three detainees have died so far this year at the Adelanto Detention Facility, the largest in California, run by GEO Group in San Bernardino County. Adelanto holds on average about 1,800 inmates at any given time.

West housing of the Adelanto Detention Center.
West housing of the Adelanto Detention Center.

The ACLU of Southern California and other legal advocates have previously raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees at Adelanto.

A spokesman for GEO Group declined to comment on the pending legislation. Spokesmen from CivicCore (formerly the Corrections Corp. of America), the company which operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

About 85 percent of beds in immigration detention centers in California are operated by private companies — a total of about 3,700 inmates across four locations, according the data compiled by CIVIC.

The remaining 15 percent of detainees are held at city or county jails that contract with ICE, such as the Theo Lacy and James A. Musick jails in Orange County, operated by the OC Sheriff's Department. In May, the OC Board of Supervisors expanded the maximum number of contract beds available to ICE from 838 to 958.

This bill, if approved, will prevent any further expansion for 10 years.

Homeland Security chief John Kelly published new federal guidelines in February that call for hiring 10,000 additional enforcement agents, increasing the holding capacity at detention centers, and reactivating a program that deputizes local law enforcement to help make immigration arrests.

Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, who helped draft the bill, says it can be difficult to access clients at the detention centers and that public oversight is overdue.

"Even when we are able to get access to these facilities it can be difficult to find out what's happening," Ruiz says. "To have the State of California regularly monitoring oversigh will lift the veil and show the general public what's actually happening there."


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