Walking into the Theo Lacy Facility jail in the city of Orange is more or less like walking into any other county jail: Inmates in their uniforms, deputies patrolling the premises, a mess hall, an exercise yard. But one group of inmates here is different.
"These are our two detainee pods, sectors one and two," said Orange County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Mike McHenry, during a recent tour of the jail. "You'll notice that the detainees are in a lime green jumpsuit, which is distinctly different than all out other colors."
The men in lime green that Orange County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Mike McHenry is referring to are immigrant detainees, people in various stages of the deportation process who are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In recent years, Congress has funded a set number of immigrant detention beds -- currently 34,000 on a daily basis around the country. As Congress gets ready to debate the federal budget, one thing that will come up is a proposed reduction in funding for these beds, which the agency rents from a mix of private contractors and local governments.
Orange County began renting vacant jail cells to ICE in 2010 in hopes of easing the county's budget shortfall. Today the county is paid $118 dollars per person, per day, to house up to 838 ICE detainees in two county jails.
Assistant Orange County Sheriff Steve Kea said taking in detainees helps the county pay its overall jail costs.
“Putting the ICE detainees in those vacant areas allows for them to pay for part of our staffing – cooks, security staff and other things along those lines," Kea said. "So that is where we are saving money, not so much generating revenue.”
The $25 to $30 million dollars the county gets from ICE each year also covers jail system expenses like food, mattresses, utilities and other costs.
In fiscal year 2014, ICE held a daily average of more than 31,000 detainees in a patchwork of facilities around the country. At an average rate of $119 dollars per bed, detaining these immigrants costs the government – and taxpayers - millions a day.
UC Davis law school dean Kevin Johnson questions the need to fund so much detention space.
"It's hard to justify a guaranteed number of beds being filled when you have no idea whether legitimate law enforcement is going to fill those beds," Johnson said.
In its proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, the Obama administration suggests cutting the number of detention beds that the government is required to fund from the current 34,000 a day to about 30,500, which would save nearly $185 million dollars.
Similar proposed cuts have failed in the past, but Johnson believes that with the political climate surrounding immigration reform this year, it could happen.
It would be a small step in the right direction for activists like Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. She says these kinds of quotas create the wrong kind of incentive.
“Whenever you are basing it on an idea that beds need to be maintained, then it is really completely arbitrary," Shah said. "Essentially you have to find people to deport, people to fill these beds, whether or not there is a need."
Orange County Sheriff's officials bristle at the idea of there being an incentive for them to arrest immigrants. Their ICE detainees aren’t necessarily people arrested in Orange County, they say, but rather sent there from throughout Southern California.
"Orange County receives its detainees from ICE," Lt. Mike McHenry said. "We don't just walk off to the corner and pick up an individual on their immigration status."
Some detainees have previously spent time in the county jail, however; they return as detainees after they complete their sentence and go into ICE custody.
While the federal budget proposes cutting immigrant detention beds, it includes funding for alternatives to detention - such as electronic monitoring - that would not require jail space.
McHenry said that if the county's ICE detention contract is cut or reduced, officials could easily fill the extra jail space with state inmates who need to be housed as part of state prison realignment, known as AB 109. But there would be a financial setback.
“The state does fund AB 109 to a degree. Is it completely funded? I would say probably not," McHenry said. "Our ICE program, on the other hand, is fully funded. If they have to reduce beds, I can certainly use them at some point, but am I going to get the funding for them? Probably not.”
Congress is expected to take up detention bed funding in the coming weeks.