By AMY TAXINE
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A sprawling, private detention center in the windswept California desert town of Adelanto could house nearly 2,000 migrants facing deportation. These days, however, it’s nearly 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 have a potential financial downside. In these contracts, the government undertakes to pay for a certain number of beds, whether they are used or not.
The government pays for at least 1,455 beds per day in Adelanto, but so far this exercise reports an average daily population of 49 inmates. Immigrant advocates say the number of detainees in Adelanto is currently closer to two dozen because authorities cannot bring in more migrants under a federal judge’s ruling related to the 2020 pandemic.
The U.S. government is paying to ensure that 30,000 migrant detention beds are available at four dozen facilities across the country, but so far this fiscal year, about half, on average, have been occupied, according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Over the past two years, immigration detention centers across the United States have been underutilized as authorities have been forced to space out detainees – in some cases, such as in Adelanto, by court order – for limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The government is still paying them to keep the facility open,” said Lizbeth Abeln, director of deportation advocacy at the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice in Southern California. “It’s really concerning that they’re still getting paid for all the beds every day. It’s empty.”
At one facility in Tacoma, Wash., 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 at least 1,170 beds, with an average daily population of 452.
ICE currently reports 23,390 detainees in police custody, according to official data. 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 by 45% between fiscal year 2017 and May 2020, according to the report.
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 a guaranteed minimum of beds ready to go when needed. Officials wrote that they needed flexibility to deal with emergencies or sudden and large increases in border crossings. They said safety and security were the top priority in detention centers, while acknowledging that the pandemic “has significantly reduced bed usage”.
The average cost of a detention bed was $144 a day over the past fiscal year, the documents show.
Immigrant advocates say the pandemic is proof that the United States doesn’t need to detain immigrants as much as authorities have claimed. Deportation officers have stepped up the use of a monitoring app to keep tabs on immigrants heading for deportation hearings instead of locking people up, they said. As of June, the agency was tracking more than 200,000 people using the SmartLink app, according to government data.
“The federal government, probably like all of us, didn’t think COVID would last that long,” said Michael Kaufman, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has sued for the release of detainees. in Adelanto. “This is an accidental test case that shows they don’t need a holding capacity close to what they say.”
The Adelanto facility — which is operated by The Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla. — 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 complaints from inmates about poor quality medical care, and during a 2018 visit to the facility, inspectors also found nooses in inmate cells and overly restrictive segregation. .
As of August 2019, more than 1,600 inmates were being held at the facility 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, according to a state report.
Shortly after COVID-19 hit, immigrant rights advocates filed a lawsuit over security concerns. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter barred ICE from bringing in new detainees and limited the number of detainees to 475. He ordered that detainees be spaced out and given room to stretch, walk and use toilets and shower, and noted an unknown number of staff and inmates were not wearing masks.
“This case involves human lives whose reasonable safety is entitled to be enforced and protected by the Court in accordance with the Constitution of the United States,” Hatter wrote in 2021.
Since then, immigration authorities have brought new detainees to a 750-bed annex in Adelanto, which was previously a state prison. But immigrant advocates said the annex was also operating well below occupancy.
Geo, who also runs the schedule, 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 greater 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 that we arrest, if we don’t have bed space, we’re going to fly them to Phoenix or in Atlanta or some other part of the country. for bed space,” Giles said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t necessarily affect our operations, but it adds more logistics to it.”
In Adelanto, the Department of Justice operates immigration courts where detainees have their deportation cases heard. Currently, judges in those courtrooms are hearing immigrant cases elsewhere in the country using video due to 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 due to health issues or expelled, and some wings of the facility have been closed, said ACLU attorney Eva Bitran.
“It’s a huge waste of resources,” she said.