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DOJ private prison phase-out doesn't affect immigrant detention, but a California bill could

FILE: A blind detainee walks with a fellow immigrant at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. The facility is the largest U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in California. John Moore/Getty Images

An announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice this week that it will phase out its use of private prisons for inmates doesn't affect immigration detainees -- and immigration officials said Thursday that they don't plan to stop using private contractors. But a state bill that's up for an Assembly vote next week could put a wrench in some private detention contracts in California.

Authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), SB 1289 seeks to prohibit California cities and counties from contracting with private prison companies for immigrant detention. Right now, three local governments do just that to house ICE detainees in California. The largest of these is in Adelanto, a high-desert city about 90 miles from Los Angeles, and many local detainees are held there.

Immigration officials contract with Adelanto for detention space in a facility that's manned by The Geo Group in a contract with the city.

Lara said he's encouraged by the DOJ announcement, even if it doesn't apply to ICE detainees directly, because he objects to for-profit incarceration.

"The DOJ’s decision to phase out its use of troubled for profit private prisons is really a turning point for an industry that has profited, time after time, on the backs of people suffering," Lara said.

His bill is expected to go before the state Assembly next week.

But it wouldn't be all good news for detainees or their families if Lara's bill becomes law, according to Los Angeles immigration attorney Doug Jalaie.

ICE wouldn't just free detainees, rather it would transfer them somewhere else. They could end up as far as Seattle or in remote locations further away than Adelanto, which is already a haul for some family members to visit.

"Less of us are willing to go out to these more remote areas," said Jalaie, who already drives an hour and a half to two hours to meet with clients detained at Adelanto, and keeps a satellite office there.

Adding distance makes face-to-face meetings difficult if not impossible, Jalaie said.

"Ultimately, the undocumented individuals or the people fighting deportation," he said, "they suffer on a systemic level."

Because the state can't tell the federal government what to do, the bill wouldn't prevent ICE from contracting directly with private prison companies. It would just cut out the cities and counties acting as middlemen -- and that could hurt municipalities' bottom lines.

The ICE detention contract is a significant revenue source for Adelanto, which is home to two other prisons and has struggled financially in recent years.

City spokesman Michael Stevens said in an emailed statement that if the bill does become law, the city's current contract with GEO goes until 2021, "which will give the City almost 5 years to find alternative arrangements" for revenue.