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California's immigrant detention bill moves forward

FILE: A guard sits in the
FILE: A guard sits in the "segregation block" at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. A bill advancing through the California Legislature would bar cities and counties in the state from contracting with for-profit prison companies for immigrant detention.
John Moore/Getty Images

The state Assembly gave the green light to a bill Tuesday that would make it illegal for California cities and counties to contract with private prison companies for immigrant detention.

If the bill becomes law, it would prohibit the renewal of a contract between the high-desert city of Adelanto and a private prison company with which the city contracts to operate a federal immigrant detention center.

The Assembly voted 49-28 Tuesday in favor of the bill, known as SB 1289. The bill would also require immigrant detention centers in the state to follow federal guidelines for the operation of immigrant detention centers. The guidelines are now optional.

The bill now goes back to the Senate, which initially approved it in June, for a vote on the House amendments. If passed by the Senate, the measure would head to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval or veto.

The bill, sponsored by Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), arose out of concerns about safety, living conditions and lack of oversight at privately run detention facilities. 

"The goal is to prohibit these for-profit companies from profiting off the backs of immigrants," Lara told KPCC after he announced the bill in April.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice announced just last week it will phase out its use of private prisons, many owned by the same companies that operate private detention centers.

Proponents of Lara's bill hope the measure will eventually lead immigration authorities to consider alternatives to detaining immigrants awaiting or fighting deportation, such as electronic monitoring.

The federal agency that detains and deports immigrants said the private prison contracts are needed to house a nationwide detainee population that averages roughly 33,000 daily.

If Lara's bill becomes law in California, detention is not going to change, said Bob Naranjo, a former deputy field officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles who retired last year. “They are not going to stop detaining individuals…they are going to be detained,” he said. 

The number of detainees held by ICE has swollen since the early 2000s following changes to immigration laws and post-9/11 security policies.

Immigrants fighting deportation who are deemed flights risks are held routinely. So are those with criminal convictions who are transferred to ICE custody for deportation once they complete their sentences.

To hold them all, the agency uses more than 400 detention facilities around the country, according to ICE.

Naranjo said if Adelanto and other similar facilities in the state were no longer available, ICE would likely have to transfer detainees to other locations where there is space.

This could include detention space that ICE contracts for in jails run by local cities and counties; these would not be affected by the bill. Such alternatives concern bill opponents like the California State Sheriffs' Association.

"Some of that workload could potentially fall on public facilities that are already fairly overcrowded," said Cory Salzillo, the association's legislative director, in April.

Besides the Adelanto Detention Facility, Lara's bill would affect two other detention centers in California. ICE has used Adelanto since 2011. Housed in a former state prison, the facility is operated by The Geo Group, a private prison company headquartered in Florida.

Before Adelanto, most of ICE’s Los Angeles-area detainees were sent to a facility in Lancaster operated under contract by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Rising costs at the facility was one reason the agency moved its detainees to Adelanto.

“Per detainee per day, that cost was climbing, and we have a budget to operate within,” Naranjo said. 

Officials expanded the Adelanto detention center last year and it now houses about 1,800 people. As of last April, ICE paid about $112.50 per detainee daily to house them.

The city of Adelanto sold the building to GEO in 2010, but the city rather than GEO continues to hold the contract with ICE. The agency contracts with the city, which in turn contracts with The GEO Group to operate the facility. GEO also runs one of the city’s jails.

Adelanto spokesman Michael Stevens said the city's contract with ICE runs until 2021 and that "will give the city almost five years to find alternative arrangements" for revenue should the state bill pass.