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Despite Ban, Feds Want More Immigrant Detention in SoCal (They Want Child Shelters, Too)

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California has banned new for-profit immigrant detention centers. And local officials have opposed the opening of new child migrant shelters. But this has not stopped private companies and the Trump administration from recently trying to open more of both.

In early October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 32, which starting Jan. 1 bans new contracts on for-profit state prisons as well as on privately run immigrant detention centers in California, like the one operated by the The Geo Group in Adelanto.

A few days later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement posted a public proposal request seeking bids for "Detention Services in California." The site of at least one of these facilities would be no more than 100 miles from Los Angeles, according to the documents.

"It's dripping with irony. ICE is clearly trying everything they can to circumvent California's ban," said Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, who wrote AB 32.

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The bidding process ended Nov. 4. In an email, ICE spokesperson Lori Haley said the agency is considering bid applications from private contractors in accordance with "federal contract and acquisition regulations," but could not disclose details like where or who the contractors are.

Haley said ICE's legal experts are currently reviewing AB 32, but "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," she wrote.


  • California has banned new contracts for private prisons and for-profit detention centers starting Jan. 1, 2020 according to a new state law.
  • Shortly after Gov. Newsom signed the bill in October banning for-profit prisons and detention centers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out a request for proposals for several new ICE detention centers in California.
  • As of early November, ICE was still seeking bids from private companies for new detention centers in California; bidding has since closed.
  • Meanwhile, the city of Los Angeles has begun the process of changing city zoning codes to block detention centers.
  • The Trump administration says migrant shelters for unaccompanied minors separated from their parents at the border are not "detention centers." Federal officials say the shelters are "state licensed residential centers" legally administered by the Department of Health and Human Services and their network of private contractors.
  • HHS says they have given a company called VisionQuest millions of dollars to open and run migrant youth shelters "in and near Los Angeles." One of those shelters is proposed for Arleta in the San Fernando Valley.
  • City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, whose district includes much of the Valley, has introduced a Council motion to try and stop VisionQuest's plans in Arleta.

The site of a proposed migrant youth shelter in the San Fernando Valley.


The proposed shelter in the San Fernando Valley would be for migrant children separated from families at the border and unaccompanied minors.

The Department of Health and Human Services oversees these child migrant shelters though the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the agency.

Patrick Fisher, a spokesperson for HHS, told LAist in an email that the agency awarded a contract to a private company called VisionQuest "to develop a two-shelter grant program and provide these services in and near Los Angeles."

According to a recent report from Reveal, the two proposed locations are Hemet and Arleta; the latter is a middle-class, predominantly Latino neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley near Pacoima.

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The Reveal report also underscored VisionQuest's poor record running shelters in Philadelphia. There, VisionQuest staff members choked, threatened and slapped children, according to state records obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In an email to LAist, L.A. City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, whose district includes much of the San Fernando Valley, confirmed the Arleta site is a former assisted living facility. "You should not be able to profit off of the anguish of children," she wrote. "That has no place in Arleta or anywhere in the City of Los Angeles."

In July, the City Council adopted a motion to amend the city's zoning codes to "prohibit the construction and operation of private detention centers."

Fisher said the proposed shelter is not a detention center and that the agency tries to promptly place children with an adult sponsor, typically a family member. "Our top priority at ORR is to unify children with their parents, family members or other suitable sponsor as swiftly and safely as possible," he wrote in an email. "While we are working to identify a sponsor, each child is provided a safe and healthy environment that ensures access to nutritious food, clean clothes, education and medical services."

Martinez said they aren't shelters or detention centers. "As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I am vehemently opposed to placing immigrant children in what some call holding facilities or detention centers," she wrote. "I call them prisons."

In an effort to stop VisionQuest's proposal, Martinez introduced a City Council resolution on Tuesday to reconsider "whether a detention facility is a permissible use" of the vacant building. "There is widespread community interest as to its future use given the needs in the surrounding area for economic development and desirable neighborhood enhancing uses," the motion states.

VisionQuest has not returned our request for comment. In a statement to Reveal, however, the company's president Mark Contento said, "We understand there is a great deal of emotion tied to the proper care of these children, and there is a lot of misinformation online."

Martinez said as she sees it, private operators like VisionQuest are "working for a dishonest Federal government that actively engaged in, and then lied about, separating immigrant children from their parents." That scenario, she said, creates "a recipe for human disaster."

Assemblyman Bonta said the distinction between ICE detention centers and migrant youth shelters is primarily a semantic one.

"It's a detention center," he said. "Maybe it's young people as opposed to adults. They might not want to call them guards but they have folks who are enforcing the rules and not allowing people to leave. Hopefully they're being as humane as possible. I mean, that's the big problem with these facilities. They're owned literally by shareholders and they're traded on Wall Street. They're trying to get their highest quarterly earnings."

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