By AMY TAXIN – Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A sprawling, privately owned detention center in the wind-ravaged California desert town of Adelanto could house nearly 2,000 migrants facing the prospect of deportation. Today, however, 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 accommodate immigrant detainees could have a potential financial disadvantage. In these contracts, the government commits to pay a certain number of beds, whether they are used or not.
The government pays a minimum of 1,455 beds per 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 as authorities are unable to bring in more migrants under a 2020 federal judge’s pandemic-related ruling.
The U.S. government is paying to ensure 30,000 immigration detention beds are available in four dozen facilities across the country, but so far this fiscal year has averaged about half, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. In the past two years, immigration detention facilities in the United States have been underutilized as authorities have been forced to segregate detainees — in some cases, such as in Adelanto, by court order — to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The government is still paying 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 getting paid for all the beds every day. It’s empty.”
At a facility in Tacoma, Washington, the guaranteed minimum is 1181 beds and the average daily population so far this fiscal year is 369, according to official data. A detention center in Jena, Louisiana, has a minimum of 1,170 beds, with an average daily population of 452.
ICE is currently reporting 23,390 detainees in custody, official data shows. The agency has long spent money on unused detention space by including guaranteed minimum payments in its contracts, according to a Government Accountability Office report focusing on the years before the pandemic. The minimum number of beds the government paid to guarantee increased by 45% from fiscal 2017 to May 2020, the report said.
Officials at ICE headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.
In annual budget documents, officials said the agency aims to use 85% to 90% of detention space overall, and pays to have guaranteed minimum beds ready in case they are needed. Officials wrote they need flexibility to deal with emergencies or sudden large increases in border crossings. They said safety and security are top priorities in the detention centers, while acknowledging that the pandemic has seen “greatly reduced bed use”.
The average cost of a detention bed was $144 per day for the past fiscal year, the documents show.
Immigrant advocates say the pandemic is proof that the US doesn’t have to detain immigrants as often as authorities claim. Deportation officers have ramped up the use of a monitoring app to keep an eye on immigrants en route to deportation hearings rather than detaining people, they said. In 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 staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California, who denounced the release of detainees in Adelanto. “This is a casual test case showing that they don’t need detention capacity close to what they say.”
The Adelanto facility — which is run by The Geo Group of Boca Raton, Florida — is one of the largest in the country and often houses immigrants arrested in the greater Los Angeles area. It has long been the subject of inmate complaints about shoddy medical care, and during a visit to the facility in 2018, inspectors also found nooses in inmate cells and overly restrictive segregation.
In August 2019, more than 1,600 inmates were held at the facility 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles, according to a state report.
Shortly after COVID-19 hit, immigrant advocates sued over security concerns. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter banned ICE from bringing in new detainees and limited the number of detainees to 475. He ordered the detainees to be spaced and have room to stretch, walk and use the toilet and shower, and noted an unknown number of staff and detainees were not wearing masks.
“This case concerns human lives whose reasonable safety has the right to be enforced and protected by the Court under the United States Constitution,” Hatter wrote in 2021.
Since then, immigration authorities have moved new detainees to a 750-bed annexe in Adelanto that was previously a state prison. But immigrant advocates said the outhouse is also well below occupancy.
Geo, who also manages the annex, declined to comment and referred all questions to immigration and customs enforcement.
Thomas P. Giles, ICE’s field office director for enforcement and removal operations in Los Angeles, said limited bed space locally means some immigrants detained in Southern California could be transferred elsewhere.
“Here in Los Angeles, we only have a limited amount of bed space, so some of the people we arrest, if we don’t have bed space, we’ll fly them to Phoenix or Atlanta or some other part of the country for bed space,” Giles said in a recent interview. interview “That doesn’t necessarily affect our operations, but it does involve more logistics.”
In Adelanto, the Justice Department runs immigration courts where detainees have their deportation cases heard. Currently, judges in these courtrooms are handling the cases of immigrants elsewhere in the country who use video because of dwindling numbers at the desert facility, said immigration judge Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Over time, hundreds of inmates have been released on bail or deported due to health concerns, and some wings of the facility have been closed, said Eva Bitran, an ACLU staff attorney.
“It’s a huge waste of resources,” she said.
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