Attorneys scrambled to locate their clients Tuesday after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement temporarily closed its detention center on Terminal Island and transferred more than 400 immigrant detainees to other facilities around the nation.
ICE officials said they shut down the San Pedro Processing Center to conduct preventive maintenance on the facility, which would take at least one month to complete. The transfers began late last week and ended Monday, authorities said. The vast majority of detainees, 230, were sent to Texas, while 132 were sent to Arizona, 26 to Washington and 20 to other facilities in California.
The two immigration courtrooms at the San Pedro center were also temporarily closed and all cases rescheduled, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Some attorneys were notified after the transfers were completed, but many of them said Tuesday that they still had not been informed.
"It's outrageous," said Judy London at Public Counsel, a pro-bono law firm in Los Angeles. "The transfer problem is not new, but I don't think we've ever seen anything so bold as transferring out an entire detainee population."
Edgardo Quintanilla said he didn't know where his client, a deaf mute, was transferred and he didn't know if he would be able to continue on as the detainee's pro-bono attorney if the move was to an out-of-state facility.
"It is going to be very hard, almost impossible, to keep representing him," he said.
The processing center lost its accreditation from the American Correctional Assn. in August for failing to meet standards, but ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the closure was unrelated. She said a contractor was to begin maintenance work immediately, including replacing the hot water boiler and improving the fire-suppression system. The agency's overriding responsibility, she said, was the safety and welfare of the detainees.
"We have moved people out of there so we could do maintenance in a quicker, more effective way," said Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE Detention and Removal Operations. "If you are going to renovate your house and live in it, it would take longer than vacating it and have the contractors come in."
Mead said the agency didn't have plans to close the processing center on Terminal Island entirely but was considering transferring control of it -- along with other ICE-owned facilities -- to private companies, in part because of the high cost of upkeep on the aging facility. The San Pedro Processing Center opened in 1938 as an immigration processing facility and became an immigration detention center in 1991.
More than 200 ICE employees and contractors who work at San Pedro will be temporarily reassigned to other offices, Kice said.
Ranjana Natarajan, an attorney at the ACLU, said she was concerned that detainees might have been transferred without their medical files and that some of them might have gone to centers lacking sufficient medical care. Many of the detainees at the San Pedro center suffered from medical and psychological conditions and were on medications.
"A lapse in medical care, especially for people with very serious conditions, can be lethal," she said.
Natarajan said if San Pedro had to be closed, ICE should have transferred the detainees to other facilities in California so they wouldn't be separated by long distances from their attorneys and their families. She also questioned what effect the transfers would have on the immigration cases of the detainees -- some of whom had hearings scheduled for this week.
The detainees are facing deportation and many are in the legal process of fighting to stay in the United States. Some were arrested after committing crimes, overstaying visas or failing to abide by deportation orders. Others were detained after their petitions for asylum or green cards were denied.
"It would be totally unacceptable for them to get continuances for everyone," Natarajan said. "That would just delay their cases and prolong their detention by weeks, if not months."
Kice said immigration authorities were working closely with the Executive Office for Immigration Review to ensure that cases would move forward.
Immigration attorney Nikhil Shah said his client had a bond hearing scheduled for 8 a.m. Tuesday. After 9 a.m., Shah received a fax from ICE that said his client had been transferred Monday to a center in Florence, Ariz. The letter read that the "safety and well-being of detainees . . . is of paramount importance" and that their "immediate relocation" was necessary.
Shah is particularly concerned about his client, who is mentally ill.
"I don't know what type of care he is getting," he said. "I don't know if this abrupt transfer has caused a psychotic episode."
The detainee's sister, Cindy Reales, said she went to visit her brother over the weekend but was told she couldn't see him.
"We are very frustrated," she said. "They didn't give any warning to anybody. It makes you feel that you have no rights."