California’s governor vetoed a bill that would stop privately run migrant detention. What now?

The World
Front of Adelanto detention center with GEO Group sign

Immigrant rights advocates in the United States hit a setback this week, but they're pledging to continue their push to end private immigration detention facilities.

On Wednesday, California's governor vetoed Senate Bill 1289, also known as the Dignity Not Detention Act.

It was originally introduced in February by California Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), with advocacy organizations including Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center as co-sponsors.

If signed, California would have been the first state in the nation to stop local governments from signing contracts with private corporations to operate immigration detention centers.

Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement Wednesday (PDF) that, while he is “troubled by recent reports detailing unsatisfactory conditions and limited access to counsel in private immigration detention facilities,” he is awaiting the Department of Homeland Security’s decision at the federal level on whether to end these contracts.

“These actions indicate that a more permanent solution to this issue may be at hand. I urge the federal authorities to act swiftly,” Brown said.

Leaders who’ve pushed for the end of private immigration facilities in California were disappointed with the governor’s decision.

“An economy based upon the confinement of people for profit is immoral and should be illegal in California and throughout the country,” says Christina Fialho, co-executive director and co-founder of CIVIC, which co-sponsored the bill.

Opponents of the bill, including the California State Sheriffs' Association, worried that the detentions would continue but that they would be shifted to already crowded public dentention facilities. Bob Naranjo, a retired ICE officer, told KPCC that tranferring detainees to private facilities also helped with local budgets.

In August, the Department of Justice announced that it would end contracts with private companies to run federal prisons. Immigration officials said then that they wouldn’t follow suit.

Fialho says Governor Brown’s decision to veto the bill was a missed opportunity to lead on one of the most important immigration issues of our time, but she and others will continue moving forward.

“In the immediate future we’ll continue to monitor immigration detention facilities on a consistent basis through our affiliated visitation programs that operate in 43 immigration detention facilities,” says Fialho. “We also are going to continue advocating for community-based alternatives to immigration detention that don’t include ankle monitors or other forms of surveillance and government control.”

The city of Santa Ana renewed its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last year. Fialho says the city has suggested that it will not renew it again after its five-year term ends in 2020.

“We’re working with the city of Santa Ana in California to determine a solution for closing the city’s immigration detention facility and assuring that all people are released back to their families,” says Fialho.

California ranks second, only to Texas, for having the most detained migrants. California has four private immigration detention facilities across its state. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University estimates that over 100,000 people went through California’s detention facilities in fiscal year 2015, which is 15 percent of all immigrant detainees that were processed in the US.

The bill would have obligated ICE to follow the 2011 ICE Performance Based National Detention Standards (PDF), which were corrected and clarified in February 2013 (PDF). ICE has the option of opting out of those 2011 guidelines and can instead follow older ones, which experts say causes poor oversight.

“ICE has done a very poor job of overseeing the facilities and that they actually comply with those standards,” says University of Denver criminal and immigration law professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández. “There are some facilities operating in the United States that are operating under standards that are about 15 years old.”

Fialho says the bill would have saved lives by giving migrant detainees access to 24/7 emergency medical and mental health care under the 2011 ICE standards. ICE reiterated these standards in a statement to PRI, but as of right now, it's not mandatory to legally enforce them.

“Had the Theo Lacy [immigration detention center in Orange County] been required by law to operate under 2011 standards last year, then Raul Ernesto Morales-Ramos might still be alive today. He actually died in immigration detention,” Fialho says. “A recent federal investigation of his death found, and I quote, ‘a critical lapse in care and access to and continuity of care.’”

Morales-Ramos died in April 2015 while detained at Adelanto Detention Facility outside Los Angeles from complications of untreated and undiagnosed intestinal cancer. A federal review of the case chronicled his care and found problems in how he was treated (PDF). The facility is run by GEO Group.

Talia Inlender is a senior staff attorney at Public Counsel in Los Angeles. She’s been working with the migrant detainee population for almost a decade and says the bill would have also helped lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender migrants in these facilities.

Also: She fled abuse in Mexico, and now this trans woman says she was abused in immigration detention too

“It would require that LGBTQ detainees be placed in housing according to their own gender identity,” Inlender says.

Inlender says the bill would respect LGBTQ migrants’ identities and keep them safer from abuse and isolation in detention.

García Hernández says approval of the bill by Governor Brown would have sent signals to private prison companies that one of their biggest customers, California, is no longer interested in their services.

“It would have sent another signal to the private prison industries that policy makers across the country are starting to have some serious doubts about whether the government ought to be relying on their services,” he says. “And when you’re in any business, or any industry, once your biggest customer starts telling you, ‘No thanks’, then you have to start wondering what’s next for you.”

Fialho says she applauds California’s legislature and the other supporters of the bill. She and others will be watching for the Department of Homeland Security's decision on Nov. 30, but in the meantime will continue their fight on the local and national stage.

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