By AMY TAXIN Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A sprawling, privately run detention center in Adelanto, a windswept California desert town, could house nearly 2,000 immigrants facing the possibility of deportation. These days, 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 house immigrant detainees could be at a potential financial disadvantage. In these contracts, the government agrees to pay for a certain number of beds, whether or not they are used.
The government pays for at least 1,455 beds per day in advance, but so far this fiscal year reports an average daily population of 49 detainees. Immigrant advocates say the number detained at Adelanto is currently closer to two dozen because authorities cannot bring in more immigrants under a federal judge’s ruling related to the 2020 pandemic.
The US government pays to ensure that 30,000 immigration detention beds are available in four dozen facilities across the country, but so far this fiscal year, on average, about half have been filled, according to data from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service. In the past two years, immigration detention centers in the United States have been underutilized as authorities were forced to space out detainees, in some cases, such as Adelanto, by court order, to limit the spread of COVID. -19.
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“The government is still paying them to keep the facilities open,” said Lizbeth Abeln, director of removal defense for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice in Southern California. “It is really worrying that they still get 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, 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 currently reports 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 focused on the years before the pandemic. The minimum number of beds the government paid to guarantee increased 45% from fiscal year 2017 to May 2020, according to the report.
ICE headquarters officials 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 to use should they be needed. Officials wrote that they need flexibility to deal with emergencies or large surges in border crossings. They said safety and security are the top priority in detention centers, while acknowledging that the pandemic has “significantly decreased bed utilization.”
The average cost of a detention bed was $144 a day during the last fiscal year, documents show.
Immigrant advocates say the pandemic is proof that the United States doesn’t need to detain immigrants as much as authorities claim. Deportation agents have increased their use of a monitoring app to monitor immigrants heading to deportation hearings rather than lock people up, they said. As of June, the agency was tracking 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 sued for the release of the Adelanto detainees. “This has been an accidental test case showing that they don’t need a stopping ability anywhere near what they’re saying.”
The Adelanto facility, which is run by the Boca Raton, Florida-based The Geo Group, is one of the largest in the country and often houses immigrants arrested in the greater Los Angeles area. For a long time it has been the subject of complaints from detainees poor-quality medical care, and on a 2018 site visit inspectors also found ropes in detainees’ cells and excessively restrictive segregation.
In August 2019, more than 1,600 detainees were held at the facility 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles, according to a status report
Shortly after COVID-19 hit, immigrant advocates sued over safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter barred ICE from bringing in new detainees and capped the number of detainees at 475. He ordered detainees to be spaced out and given room to stretch out, walk, and use the bathroom and shower, noting an unknown number. staff and detainees. he didn’t wear masks.
“This case involves human life whose reasonable security is entitled to be applied and protected by the Court in accordance with the Constitution of the United States,” Hatter wrote in 2021.
Since then, immigration authorities have been bringing new detainees to a 750-bed annex in Adelanto that was formerly a state prison. But immigrant advocates said the annex also falls far short of the occupation.
Geo, which also manages the annex, declined to comment and referred all questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Thomas P. Giles, ICE field office director for enforcement and removal operations in the greater Los Angeles area, said limited bed space locally means some immigrants detained in Southern California could be moved. to another place.
“Here in Los Angeles, we only have a limited amount of bed space, so some of the people that we arrest, if we don’t have bed space, we’ll take them to Phoenix or Atlanta or another part of the country. for bed space,” Giles said during a recent interview. “That doesn’t necessarily affect our operations, but it does involve more logistics.”
In Adelanto, the Department of Justice administers the immigration courts where deportation cases of detainees are heard. Currently, judges in these courtrooms are hearing immigrant cases in other parts of the country using video because of declining numbers at desert facilities, said Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Immigration.
Over time, hundreds of detainees have been released on bail or due to health problems or have been deported, and some wings of the facility have been closed, said Eva Bitran, staff attorney with the ACLU.
“It’s a tremendous waste of resources,” he said.
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