The federal government is looking for contractors to build a possible detention center in the Los Angeles area that would hold up to 2,200 illegal immigrants and others suspected of violating immigration laws.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said last week that the agency was "exploring the feasibility of such a project," though she said no definitive decisions had been made.
"ICE is continuing to review its options to determine how to best meet the agency's future local and national detention needs," she said.
The Department of Homeland Security posted an online notice saying that the center would be within 120 miles of downtown Los Angeles and owned and operated by a contractor, which would provide the facilities, personnel, management, equipment and services. In recent years, the government has increasingly contracted out its immigration detention services nationwide to private companies such as the Corrections Corp. of America and the GEO Group.
The move toward privatization has been criticized by immigrant rights advocates, who say that detention has become a lucrative business and that detainees are often kept in unsafe conditions without access to adequate medical care. Eighty-three detainees have died while in immigration custody since 2004, according to the immigration agency, prompting congressional inquiries about detainee medical care.
The federal government should decrease the number of people held in detention rather than adding new centers, said Ahilan Arulanantham, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The government routinely detains people who are neither a danger nor a flight risk, he said.
"At this time, we should be focusing on less detention, not more," Arulanantham said. "It's much more expensive to detain people rather than supervise them to ensure that they appear for their removal proceedings and for deportation if necessary."
In Los Angeles, the bulk of detainees are held at Mira Loma, a Sheriff's Department facility in Lancaster that has 1,400 beds designated for immigration detainees. The government also holds detainees at nine local county and city jails, including Santa Ana and Pasadena. Those centers, however, do not have the resources to house detainees with serious criminal histories or extensive medical needs, Kice said.
"L.A. is not unique," Kice said. "We have a significant number of beds, but we've never had a one-size-fits-all facility."
The government closed a detention center on Terminal Island in October 2007, saying the San Pedro facility needed repairs including work on a hot water boiler and a fire-suppression system. More than 400 detainees were transferred to other facilities in California, Texas, Arizona and Washington, frustrating attorneys fighting their cases in immigration court.
Though the government had said the San Pedro detention center would be closed temporarily, Kice said that the necessary repairs are on hold indefinitely.
"Given the expenses involved, ICE has elected not to proceed with any construction until a final decision has been made about the future of the facility," she said.
Arulanantham said that if immigration authorities plan to continue detaining large numbers of immigrants, they should keep them near their homes, families and attorneys.