LOS ANGELES – A sprawling, privately run detention center in the windswept California desert city of Adelanto could house nearly 2,000 migrants who face deportation. However, these days it is almost empty.
The Adelanto facility is an extreme example of how the US government’s use of guaranteed minimum payments in contracts with private companies to house immigrant detainees could have a potential financial disadvantage. In these contracts, the government agrees to pay for a certain number of beds, regardless of whether they are used or not.
The government is paying at least 1,455 beds a day in Adelanto, but so far this fiscal year reports an average daily population of 49 inmates. Immigrant advocates say the number of detainees in Adelanto is currently closer to two dozen because authorities can’t hold more migrants following a federal judge’s 2020 pandemic-related decision.
The US government is paying to ensure 30,000 immigrant detention beds are available at four dozen facilities across the country, but on average about half have been occupied so far this fiscal year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. Over the past two years, immigration detention centers in the United States have been underutilized as authorities have been forced to isolate detainees — in some cases, by court order, as in Adelanto — in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“The government still pays them to keep the facility open,” said Lizbeth Abeln, director of deportation defense at the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice in Southern California. “It’s really worrying that they’re still being paid for all the beds every day. It is empty.”
At a facility in Tacoma, Washington, the guaranteed minimum is 1,181 beds and the average daily population so far this fiscal year is 369 official data. A detention center in Jena, Louisiana has at least 1,170 beds with an average daily population of 452.
ICE currently reports 23,390 detainees in custody, official data shows. The agency has long spent money on unused cells by including guaranteed minimum payments in its contracts, saying a Government Accountability Office report focused on the years leading up to the pandemic. The minimum number of beds the government paid for to guarantee increased by 45% from fiscal 2017 to May 2020, according to the report.
Officials at ICE headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.
In the year household records, officials said the agency aims to use 85% to 90% of detention space in general, paying to have guaranteed minimum beds ready should they be needed. Officials wrote that they need flexibility to deal with emergencies or a sudden surge in border crossings. They said safety is the top priority in detention centers but acknowledged the pandemic has caused a “sharp reduced bed occupancy”.
The average cost of a detention bed was $144 a day in the last fiscal year, the documents show.
Immigrant advocates say the pandemic is proof the US doesn’t have to detain immigrants as often as authorities have claimed. Deportation agents have increased the use of a surveillance app to keep tabs on immigrants heading for deportation hearings rather than jailing people, they said. As of June, the agency tracked more than 200,000 people using the SmartLink app, government data shows.
“The federal government, probably like all of us, didn’t think COVID would last this long,” said Michael Kaufman, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is seeking the release of inmates in Adelanto. “This was a random test case showing they don’t need a detention capacity anywhere close to what they say.”
The Adelanto facility — operated by The Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla. — is one of the largest in the country and often houses immigrants who have been arrested in the greater Los Angeles area. It’s been a subject for a long time complaints from prisoners the shabby medical care and during a visit to the facility in 2018 Inspectors also found nooses in the detainees’ cells and overly restrictive segregation.
As of August 2019, more than 1,600 inmates were being held at the facility 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles, according to a condition report.
Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, immigrant advocates sued over safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter barred ICE from accepting new inmates and capped the inmate count at 475. He ordered inmates to be spread out spatially and have room to stretch, walk, and use the toilet and shower and found an unknown number of staff and inmates not wearing masks.
“This case involves lives whose reasonable safety is entitled under the United States Constitution to be enforced and protected by the court,” Hatter wrote in 2021.
Since then, immigration officials have been moving new inmates to a 750-bed annex in Adelanto that was previously a state penitentiary. But immigrant advocates said cultivation is also running well below occupancy.
Geo, which also operates the annex, declined comment and referred any questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Thomas P. Giles, ICE field manager for enforcement and deportation operations in the greater Los Angeles area, said limited on-site bed space meant some immigrants detained in Southern California could be relocated elsewhere.
“Here in Los Angeles we have a limited amount of beds, so we fly some of the people that we arrest when we don’t have space to Phoenix or Atlanta or another part of the country for bed space,” Giles said recently in an interview. “It doesn’t necessarily affect our operations, but it does require more logistics.”
In Adelanto, the Department of Justice operates immigration courts where deportation cases of detainees are heard. Currently, judges in those courtrooms are listening to the cases of immigrants in other parts of the country through video as the number of immigrants in the desert facility dwindles, said immigration judge Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Over time, hundreds of detainees have been released on bail or on medical grounds or deported, and some wings of the facility have been closed, said Eva Bitran, an ACLU staff lawyer.
“It’s a huge waste of resources,” she said.
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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/07/04/immigration-detention-facility-near-empty-in-california/ California immigration detention center almost empty