California Banned Private Immigrant Detention Centers. So How Could Some Exist For Another 15 Years?

Under the new contract between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and The GEO Group, Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, California will expand by 750 beds. (Photo: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

The federal government has awarded new contracts to private companies that operate four immigrant detention centers in California, just days before a new state law goes into effect banning new, for-profit detention centers. The agreements, signed last week, also allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to add more than 2,100 detention beds in California.

Immigrant rights advocates and civil rights groups have long cited poor conditions and alleged abuse at the private detention facilities. A report earlier this year from the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security found ICE failed to hold contractors accountable for problems at detention facilities.

ICE has maintained that it's committed to making sure detainees "reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement." The agency and its contractors have also said that removing all private immigration detention centers from California would make it harder for detainees to receive visitors.

Here's what we know about the new detention contracts.

WHERE ARE THE FOUR CENTERS AND WHO RUNS THEM?

The contracts, worth a total of about $6.5 billion, have been signed with three companies that currently operate the four private detention centers in California: The GEO Group, CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation.

The existing centers are:

  • Adelanto ICE Processing Center, San Bernardino County, CA, run by The GEO Group
  • Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, Bakersfield, CA, also run by The GEO Group
  • Otay Mesa Detention Center, San Diego, CA, run by CoreCivic
  • Imperial Regional Detention Facility, Calexico, CA, run by Management & Training Corp.

PRISONERS OUT; IMMIGRANT DETAINEES IN

Some centers will expand, using buildings that were previously used as prisons. The two new, 15-year contracts with The GEO Group cover three prisons the company owns that will be used as ICE detention facilities, adding an additional 2,150 beds.

  • Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility, Adelanto, CA (750 beds)
  • Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility, McFarland, CA (700 beds)
  • Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility, McFarland, CA (700 beds)

GEO Group says these prisons will be used as "annexes," presumably to its existing detention facilities in Adelanto and Bakersfield. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ended its contract with the Central Valley prison in September, and spokesperson Ike Dodson says the agency plans to leave the other two facilities "as soon as possible." (The contracts for Desert View and Golden State expire in 2023).

The addition of these facilities means the Adelanto ICE Processing Center will expand to a capacity of 2,690 immigrant detainees and Mesa Verde in Bakersfield will expand to a capacity of 1,800 detainees.

"These contracts will help the agency meet its need for processing center beds in California, avoiding the need to send individuals to other states away from their families and legal counsel, while also supporting 1,200 jobs in communities we have partnered with for 30 years," a GEO Group spokesperson said.

DON'T THE NEW ICE CONTRACTS GO AGAINST STATE LAW (AB 32)?

That's the fight between California and the feds. In October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 32, which will phase out the use of both private prisons and immigrant detention facilities in the state. Starting Jan. 1, the law bars the state from signing or renewing contracts with private prison companies. But a private detention facility can continue to run for the duration of its contract if the contract was in effect before the new year.

A few days after Newsom signed the bill, ICE posted a request for proposals for immigrant detention facilities that are "turnkey ready." Immigrant rights advocates and lawmakers blasted the agency, saying it was trying to get around the state's new law, and that ICE's actions raised questions about federal procurement laws, which require full and open competition.

"It's just a clear attempt to circumvent the wishes of Californians and unlawfully enter into these contracts," Grisel Ruiz, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), who sponsored AB 32, told NPR this week that the agency "should've complied with federal law."

"And if it did, [the procurement process] would've been longer and more competitive and moved past Jan. 1, 2020," he said. "But they deliberately manipulated the process, gamed it and rigged it so that they could get these new contracts in place before Jan. 1, 2020."

A spokesperson for ICE said the agency "remains compliant with federal contract and acquisition regulations in the announcement and subsequent award of these contracts." Because the contracts start Dec. 20, the spokesperson said, they're not "impacted by the limitations on the operation of private detention facilities by California AB 32."

The spokesperson also said that "state laws aimed at obstructing federal law enforcement are inappropriate and harmful."

The GEO Group has also sued the state, claiming AB 32 is unconstitutional. The company is asking a federal court to bar the state from enforcing the law, saying it's "a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law."

"There is a longstanding and clear-cut constitutional principle that individual states cannot regulate the actions and activities of the federal government," a GEO spokesperson said in a statement.

Gov. Newsom's office says its reviewing the complaint.

DOES CALIFORNIA HAVE ANY POWER TO BLOCK THE NEW CONTRACTS?

Maybe? CA Assemblyman Rob Bonta offered several options to counter the contracts when speaking to NPR, including:

  • Ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order.
  • Request an injunction, which would be filed by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
  • Seek action from California's congressional delegation in the form of "oversight hearings and challenging these contracts for violation of federal law." (A group of California lawmakers sent a letter to ICE earlier this year on this very topic).

At the state legislative level, Bonta said he's considering introducing new legislation that "increases the authority of the state of California to protect its people against the abuses of these for-profit private detention centers, including stepping in and intervening and ending their abusive practices if it's documented that that's what's happening."

Attorney General Becerra's office didn't say if Becerra would take any legal action, but a spokesperson said the office would "circle back if there's anything to share."

Gov. Newsom's office issued a strong statement against the new contracts and pointed to Congress to take action.

"This effort to circumvent California's authority and federal procurement rules that safeguard the American taxpayers must be addressed by Congressional oversight. DHS, ICE and any private companies that engaged in this solicitation must publicly account for their actions," said Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for Newsom.

The Dignity not Detention Coalition, a group of immigrant advocacy groups, urged the Attorney General and lawmakers to act.

"It's extremely heartless and cruel for ICE to waste taxpayer money to prop up an abusive detention system. We have a vision for a better future, and AB 32 is a crucial part of that vision — this money should be used for housing and health for everyone, not to detain and abuse community members."

Meanwhile, the GEO Group, in its lawsuit challenging AB 32, is asking a federal court to declare that its new contracts are valid.

UPDATES:

Jan. 2, 2020, 12:00 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a new lawsuit the GEO Group filed against the state on Dec. 30 2019.

This article was originally published at Dec. 27, 2019.