Uncertainty plagues families who worry immigrant detainees in Southern California will be sent out of state

Orange County jails stopped getting new arrivals; Adelanto still accepting them

Neon-colored jail clothes signifies immigration inmates at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By ROXANA KOPETMAN | rkopetman@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: April 12, 2019 at 6:25 pm | UPDATED: April 12, 2019 at 10:59 pm

More than two weeks after Orange County and Adelanto officials said they were getting out of the immigrant detention business, the fate of some 2,500 people still held in prison-like facilities remains unclear.

Though federal immigration officials declined comment Friday, they indicated last month that detainees in Orange County and Adelanto could be sent out of California.

Because such relocation could affect thousands of families in the region – separating immigrant parents and spouses from their loved ones, and from their lawyers – the continued uncertainty is generating frustration and fear in the community. Some detainee families and supporters plan to hold a rally Saturday outside the Theo Lacy jail in Orange to draw public attention to the situation.

“The biggest concern we have is what’s going to happen to people detained? Our hope is that ICE will free them,” said Santa Ana resident Jose Servin, spokesman for the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.

In Orange County, as the Sheriff’s Department winds down its contract to hold immigrant detainees, the U.S. Customs and Enforcement Agency has stopped transferring detainees into the Theo Lacy and James A. Musick jails, Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said Friday.

The number of civilian immigrant detainees in Orange County jails has steadily decreased since March 27, when Sheriff Don Barnes announced that his agency will end its contract with ICE on Aug. 1. In March, the jails held an average of 703 detainees per day. This month, Braun said the average has been 593 a day, dropping from 651 on April 1 to 545 on Friday.

It’s unclear whether any detainees have been transferred elsewhere or released on bond. It’s also unclear where new detainees who would have been detained in Orange County have been sent instead.

“Movement happens all the times with detainees. We don’t know if that movement happened because of the announcement. We just know we’re not being brought detainees for long-term holding,” said Braun, who referred most questions to federal immigration officials.

ICE officials declined to answer questions but instead provided statements they’ve released in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the city of Adelanto soon may revisit its recent move to pull out of its contract with ICE and a private company that owns and runs the state’s largest immigrant detention center in town.

On March 27, Adelanto City Manager Jessie Flores wrote ICE and The GEO Group, a private company that owns and runs the immigrant detention center in town, that the city was ending its role in a contract with the two agencies. As it stands, the plan is to end the contracts within 120 days.

But during a council meeting this week, Adelanto Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans asked the city attorney if Adelanto can rescind Flores’ letters and bring the issue back to the council for a public hearing. Evans said the matter is “better suited for a council decision.” Fellow Councilman Gerardo Hernandez agreed. City attorney Victor Ponto said he would come back at a future meeting with an answer to their request.

Immigrant-rights advocates fear that if the city of Adelanto isn’t involved in the contract, then GEO could work directly with ICE, possibly expanding the number of people who can be held in what is now a nearly 2,000-bed facility. Stevevonna said that was the stated goal of GEO owner George Zoley, who asked the city to end its role in the contract so he could expand the facility. Zoley, whose company owns detention centers across the country, has declined comment.

The Adelanto ICE Processing Center, meanwhile, appears to be taking in new detainees, according to several attorneys and immigrant-rights advocates.

“From what we see, new detainees continue to arrive. To me that indicates there are plans to continue operations.

If there were plans to close, I don’t think there would be new people arriving,” said Patricia Ortiz, director of the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a non-profit legal program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles.

In Orange County, the sheriff said his department chose to end its contract so it could better focus on mental health issues for the remaining inmate population. The department is updating existing housing at the Central Jail Complex in Santa Ana and building a new Musick facility near Irvine.

Sameer Ahmed, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, believes other factors were at play.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s decision was made because of the years of advocacy by community and legal groups uncovering the deplorable conditions at the Orange County jails,” Ahmed wrote in an email. “(T)he Sheriff feared liability from both pending and future lawsuits.”