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California state measure calls for end to profit-making immigrant detention contracts

FILE: Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. John Moore/Getty Images

A new state bill aims to stop California cities and counties from contracting with private prison companies that detain immigrants, but the effort is generating pushback from one locality.

The high-desert prison town of Adelanto, a city of roughly 32,000, is home to two jails and one immigrant detention center. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with Adelanto for detention space for up to 1,455 immigrants at $112.50 per detainee, per day. The city, in turn, contracts with The GEO Group, a private company that runs both the Adelanto Detention Facility and one of the city’s jails.

Adelanto officials sold the building that houses the detention center, a former state prison, to GEO in 2010. But the city holds the contract for its operation, and receives a cut of the amount ICE pays for the service.

With the Adelanto facility's daily population averaging roughly 1,200 and based on the per-diem rate, ICE pays up to about $4 million a month — and more if the detention center is filled to its 1,940-detainee capacity.

But a bill sponsored by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) could put an end to Adelanto's immigrant detention contract.

"For far too long, our immigration system has promoted profits over people," Lara told KPCC. "The goal is to prohibit these for-profit companies from profiting off the backs of immigrants."

Cities like Adelanto depend on detention space revenue. In Adelanto, which nearly went bankrupt last year, City Council member John “Bug” Woodard, a self-described Tea Party Republican, said the GEO contracts are vital to the city's economy.

"I think a good 25 percent of our income comes from those jailhouses," Woodard said. "GEO is an important part of this community, and any idiot up in Sacramento that would like us not to do business with them, they’ve got their heads where the sun don’t shine."

Adelanto has been fighting to stave off bankruptcy in recent years. Last year, Woodard championed a new revenue source — an ordinance that allows medical marijuana cultivation in the city.

Proponents of Lara's detention bill say it would affect four local governments in California that work with private detention contractors, Adelanto included. The bill would only bar local governments from working with for-profit detention contractors; it would not prohibit them from contracting detention space directly to ICE, as does the Orange County Sheriff's Department, for example.

Immigration authorities have increasingly relied on private contractors and local governments for space to house immigrants awaiting or fighting deportation since the early 2000s, when the detainee population exploded as a result of tighter immigration policies. 

While its scope seems limited, the bill would affect many more local-government contracts in other ways: a provision of the bill would make it mandatory for all immigrant detention facilities in California to comply with federal standards guidelines that are now optional.

"Even if immigrants are in public holding facilities, like say with the sheriff or a local police station, these rules would have to be adhered to, regardless of whether they are private or public," Lara said.

The bill would also make it easier for immigrants to sue these detention facilities if they believe their rights are violated.

The threat of lawsuits worries the California State Sheriffs' Association, which opposes the proposal. So does the possibility of ICE having to move detainees from private-contract facilities affected by the bill to those that rent space directly to ICE, as many local jails do.

"Some of that workload could potentially fall on public facilities that are already fairly overcrowded," said Cory Salzillo, legislative director with the sheriffs' ssociation.

The measure requires approval by both houses of the California Legislature and the governor's signature before it could take effect. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hear the bill next week.