Last Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill halting the expansion of for-profit immigration detention facilities in California, signaling the state’s opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts to expand detention centers and ramp up deportations.
The Dignity Not Detention Act, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), restricts any new business deals between California and private immigration detention facility companies, halts plans to bolster private facilities, and requires public input for future building permits.
Activists from the Immigrant Youth Coalition, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) gathered Thursday morning at the Elihu M. Harris state office building on Clay Street in downtown Oakland to publicly urge the governor to sign the bill, also known as Senate Bill 29.
The groups did not realize that Brown would sign it just before noon. Upon hearing the news, Sandy Valenciano, the statewide coordinator at California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, called it a “huge victory” for the state and nation.
“SB 29 is surely going to create a pathway to be able to make justice happen for our community,” she said.
There are four privately-run immigration detention centers in California: Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico and Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego.
The new law requires all California facilities to adhere to national standards and follows a different state budget measure passed in June requiring the California Department of Justice to perform annual audits of the detention centers.
The immigration advocacy groups hope that the two measures will work in conjunction to improve conditions for the detainees, amid reports of widespread food, health, and safety violations at detention centers across the nation.
Earlier this year, Mother Jones magazine reported that three inmates died in a span of three months while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Adelanto Detention Facility.
In April, CIVIC filed a federal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, alleging a rise in sexual abuse, assault, and harassment in immigration detention facilities across the nation. According to data in the report received from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office itself, the office received more than 1,000 complaints from detainees reporting sexual abuse or assault during a two-year period beginning in May, 2014. The majority of complaints involved ICE, but it is unclear how they were addressed.
A different report from DHS published this spring detailed accounts of spoiled food being served at the Theo Lacy Detention Facility in Orange County.
“We’ve had people file complaints with us about maggots in meat, expired milk that’s being served, and really disgusting things that are taking place behind closed doors with little transparency or accountability,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of CIVIC, one of the groups that organized last week’s rally.
Allegations have been ongoing since Adelanto, which opened in 2011, caught the attention of about 30 members of Congress two years ago. The Congressmembers said they opposed the expansion of the facility, citing its “documented history of medical neglect,” and requested a health and safety investigation in a 2015 letter to ICE and federal inspectors.
Adelanto is operated by GEO Group Inc., one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the nation and ICE’s largest broker, having held $900 million in contracts since 2013, according to Bloomberg. GEO Group’s contract was extended last year to run through 2021, but the Dignity not Detention Act will prevent it from renewing its contract.
Public and private detention facilities are required to adhere to federal standards, but abuses have persisted, said Grisel Ruiz, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resources Center who attended the rally.
“The problem is that these standards are not codified—they’re just strong suggestions written into all the contracts but no one really follows them,” Ruiz said. “There isn’t really any recourse.”
The number of people in immigration detention has more than doubled over the past two decades, and more than three-fifths of immigrant detainees are held in private detention facilities, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The growth is due in part to a congressional quota policy that was added in 2009 and currently requires ICE to keep an average of 34,000 immigrants in custody per day, which has allowed prison company profits to rise. In 2015, GEO Group reported a revenue of $1.84 billion and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), another large private prison corporation, reported a revenue of $1.79 billion the same year.
The government spends billions of dollars annually to maintain the immigration detention system. The 2016 Department of Homeland Security budget includes $3.3 billion “to provide safe, secure, and humane detention and removal of removable individuals” and includes nearly $350 million “to fund an increased number of family beds.”
Not all immigration detainees have serious criminal histories. Many are refugees who crossed the border illegally, some have overstayed visas, and others hold green cards, according to Fialho.
Ruiz says the Immigrant Legal Resources Center has held deportation defense trainings across the country for lawyers. “Hopefully with more people willing to step in on these cases we’ll see fewer people enter the [immigration detention] system,” she said.
The new law was one of 11 signed by Brown on Thursday expanding protections for undocumented immigrants in California. The new legislation included a sanctuary state policy, expansion of education services for immigrants, and new employment and housing protections for undocumented immigrants.
“California currently detains a quarter of all people in immigration detention per year nationwide, so what we do here in California really has an impact on the immigration detention system nationwide,” Fialho said.
At the rally, Lodi resident Jennifer Bravo, 17, took the megaphone to share her story as a citizen and daughter of undocumented immigrants. Her father was deported to Mexico five years ago, she said, and her mother was detained by ICE agents this spring and now faces deportation. The high school senior said that if her mother is deported, she will likely leave for Mexico too, even though she’d prefer to stay and graduate.
“My mom had been taking care of us as a single mother, so it’s been hard,” she said. “She’s the only thing we had.”
Bravo said her mother has recounted stories of detention guards “getting mad” and “throwing their food at them.”
“My mom has said before that they treat them really bad,” she said. “She says she wouldn’t wish this on anybody, what she’s going through.”