SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California desert community has backed out of a contract for the state's largest immigration detention facility in a move that won't necessarily close its doors but rather could open them to an expansion.
The city of Adelanto took steps late last month to end its contract with U.S. immigration authorities and a private prison company for the 1,900 bed-center some 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Los Angeles amid complaints of shoddy conditions and inadequate medical care.
A recent California law aimed at pushing back against the Trump administration's immigration crackdown bars local governments like Adelanto's from growing their detention contracts. But it doesn't block companies like Boca Raton, Florida-based The GEO Group from doing so.
"Without us being involved, they can expand," said Stevevonna Evans, an Adelanto councilwoman who opposed ending the contract. She said she discussed the issue with GEO officials several times. "I had three meetings with them where they were trying to get me to see it their way — GEO is for this happening."
The move comes during an ongoing battle between California officials and the Trump administration over immigration enforcement. After Trump's election on promises of a border wall, California passed laws limiting police collaboration with deportation officials, requiring detention center reviews and halting the growth of local contracts for immigration detention.
Over the past year, several California counties have opted to end their contracts, including Contra Costa in the San Francisco Bay Area and Orange in Southern California. In those cases, the county sheriff's departments ran the facilities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and once the contracts end, the immigration detention centers will cease to exist.
In contrast, Adelanto and the city of McFarland in central California are withdrawing from the contracts they entered so GEO could run facilities for ICE. At the time, such deals were seen by cities as a way to secure revenue and local jobs, and it meant that the facilities could open without going through a federal bidding process.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has now signed a one-year contract directly with GEO to keep the 400-bed Mesa Verde facility open while they evaluate options. In the case of Adelanto, it's unclear what will happen to the facility, which is owned by GEO.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will keep Adelanto open as long as there is a viable contract and "explore all options to continue the use of all current facilities."
Pablo Paez, a GEO Group spokesman, declined to comment.
"This is one more twist in the continued push by advocates in California to make it harder for anyone to profit off of immigration detention," said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who researches the intersection of criminal and immigration law.
"I think it's entirely to be expected the private prison industry would push back."
Across the United States, some local governments have started to pull back from immigration detention contracts following the Trump administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy that split up immigrant families on the southwest border.
In Texas, Williamson County officials last year withdrew from a contract to run a 500 bed-detention center, and ICE has reached a short-term contract with Nashville, Tennessee-based CoreCivic to keep the facility open.
The city of Eloy, Arizona, agreed to end a contract with ICE for a family detention facility in Texas after a government oversight body found it didn't follow federal procurement guidelines. The decision also followed the death of a sick child after her release, and since then the city of Dilley, where the 2,400-bed facility is located, has stepped in to take its place.
The changes may have a significant impact in California due to the state law signed in 2017 to limit the expansion of immigration detention. Last year, the nation's most populous state had 5,500 immigration detention beds, according to the state Attorney General's office.
With the announced facility closures, detention bed space in the state will shrink by a quarter. And once that happens, the center in Adelanto would account for 47 percent of the immigration detention beds in California.
The center — one of the biggest in the country — has faced a litany of complaints about medical care and federal inspectors last year found nooses made from bedsheets hanging in detainees' cells.
On Monday, immigrant advocates said a 27-year-old man died after he was held at the facility. Jose Ibarra Bucio collapsed on his way to an immigration court hearing in February and was taken to a hospital by detention officials and later went into a coma, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said in an advisory for a press conference seeking information about his death.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Ibarra was taken into custody from state prison following a conviction for fleeing a traffic officer while driving recklessly, held in Adelanto and released on Feb. 22 "with respect to humanitarian concerns." The agency declined to answer additional questions.
Immigration authorities pay $113 for each of the first 1,455 detainees housed there each day, according to the agency's budget.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said the closure of facilities means immigrants could be moved farther from cities where detainees may have relatives and friends who can visit them and lawyers to help with their deportation cases.
Immigration and border officers booked nearly 400,000 people into detention facilities during the 2018 fiscal year, up 23 percent from a year earlier, government data shows.
But immigrant advocates said they hope more states and local governments will follow California and get out of the immigration detention business. They said over time that could reduce the number of immigrants who are detained during their deportation proceedings.
"The bigger goal here is to shift the conversation," said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network.