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California Bars Expansion of ‘Inhumane’ Immigration Detention Facilities

Tina Vasquez

In the first law of its kind, the state attorney general is being given power to review conditions in California detention facilities.

California’s Democratic-majority legislature will put a moratorium on the expansion of immigration detention, with a budget provision giving a state agency the power to monitor detention facility conditions.

The measure is attached to the state’s $125 billion budget, which is set to pass Thursday. Pushed by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who received consultation from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), the bill seeks to provide oversight and transparency for a system that advocates say has “operated with impunity for too long.”

Grisel Ruiz, a staff attorney at ILRC who consulted in the drafting of the bill, told Rewire in an interview that California is setting an “amazing precedent” with its effort to stop expansion of immigration detention.

“This is the first bill to give a state agency power to monitor the conditions inside detention centers, which means we will actually have some transparency and reliable reports about what’s happening inside a detention system that’s operated with very little oversight and almost no accountability,” Ruiz said.

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The state’s first report on conditions within its immigration detention system is due in 2019.

Transparency, Ruiz said, has been “a huge problem.” Organizations like CIVIC, ILRC, Detention Watch Network, and Human Rights Watch have been documenting detention conditions for years, including allegations of sexual assault, physical abuse, substandard medical care, and in-custody deaths—a troublingly common occurrence inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities and facilities run by companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America.

Carlos Mejia-Bonilla died June 10 while in ICE custody, and the federal immigration agency is refusing to reveal the detention center where he was held prior to his death. This marks the tenth death in ICE detention since the start of the fiscal year, and the 174th death in detention since 2003.

Organizations investigating detention conditions regularly hit brick walls when conducting their investigations, including an “incredible lack of transparency” from the Department of Homeland Security and ICE.

“At least now we know that in the state of California, the attorney general will have access unlike ever before and there will be funding and resources for the attorney general to have oversight of the system and provide the public with regular reports,” Ruiz said. “At least in the state of California, with this provision, we can say that we are watching and that until we can abolish this [detention system] entirely, we want people treated humanely. This is a solid road block for pushing back on the bigger system.”

The bill also creates a moratorium on new contracts between state municipalities and ICE for immigration detention facilities, while preventing facilities in contract with ICE from expanding their detention beds for the next decade.

Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of CIVIC, said this will immediately affect detention centers in the state. In Orange County, California, for example, where the sheriff’s department has worked to increase the number of immigrants detained in county jails, no increase of detention beds will be able to take place for the next decade.

The Adelanto Detention Center, a private detention facility in California, contracts with the city of Adelanto, which in turn contracts with ICE. Because the city is in an intergovernmental service agreement with ICE, California’s new bill will prevent Adelanto from expanding immigration detention beds.

Thirty-nine people at the Adelanto Detention Center are on hunger strike, protesting inhume conditions. Fialho told Rewire that the men who are hunger striking have reported being beaten and pepper sprayed for participating. The women, who launched their hunger strike Tuesday, are reporting being threatened with the same abuse.

In 2016, Lara authored the Dignity Not Detention Act with the help of CIVIC and ILRC, but it was vetoed by the governor. The bill was re-introduced this year and passed the Democratic-held state senate.

“The budget action goes hand in hand with the act, which came about because 400 people at Adelanto went on hunger strike in 2015 to protest the inhumane treatment they received inside. It’s interesting that as the budget and this groundbreaking bill go to vote, people at Adelanto are again protesting these horribly inhumane conditions,” Fialho said.

While the bill can’t stop direct contracts between ICE and private prison companies, Fialho called it an important first, one that prevents California from being complicit in a profit-driven immigration detention expansion under President Trump.

Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders are making private prison companies “filthy rich,” as Vice reported, because they “effectively gave the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to expand immigrant detention.” Trump is rapidly expanding immigrant detention, an already unruly system with little oversight. An internal memo reported by the Washington Post revealed that ICE procured an additional 1,100 detention beds and has identified 27 potential facilities with space for 21,000 people.

While the administration moves to increase the number of people detained, it is doing away with the few requirements and protections that were in place for immigrants in these facilities—including what will essentially be the elimination of the Performance Based National Detention Standards, which required that county jails detaining immigrants had to follow the same standards as other jails. What was once a 455-page list of requirements—with provisions ensuring those detained have access to prompt medical care, a staff member able to advocate in English on their behalf, and daily evaluations for those who are suicidal, among other requirements—has been reduced to an 18-page checklist.

Fialho said California’s decision will have a direct effect on immigration detention policy in other states, especially because it has the largest economy in the country. Outside of Texas, California holds the most immigrants in detention, and a quarter of all people in detention pass through California detention facilities each year. Fialho said she hopes other states follow suit with similar bills.

“Like many people who do this work, we want to see the federal government abolish private immigration detention facilities, but our ultimate goal is to abolish immigrant detention entirely nationwide,” she said. “The standards of confinement were never good and under Trump, there’s even less oversight over these facilities. This is a moral crisis and a human rights crisis and we have a moral imperative to ensure that all people in our country are treated humanely.”

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