Tomas Castro Lopez, left, plays chess with a fellow El Salvadoran detainee… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)
At a time when local law enforcement agencies are being forced to cut budgets and freeze hiring, cities across Southern California have found a growing source of income -- immigration detention.
Roughly two-thirds of the nation's immigrant detainees are held in local jails, and the payments to cities and counties for housing them have increased as the federal government has cracked down on illegal immigrants with criminal records and outstanding deportation orders.
Washington paid nearly $55.2 million to house detainees at 13 local jails in California in fiscal year 2008, up from $52.6 million the previous year. The U.S. is on track to spend $57 million this year.
The largest federal contract in the state is with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, whose 1,400-bed detention center in Lancaster is dedicated to housing immigrants either awaiting deportation or fighting their cases in court. The department received $34.7 million in 2008, up from $32.3 million the previous year.
Some smaller cities have seen their income rise much faster. Glendale received nearly $260,000 in 2008, triple what it got the previous year. In Alhambra, last year's $247,000 was more than double the previous year's payments.
For some cash-strapped cities, the federal money has become a critical source of revenue, covering budget shortfalls and saving positions.
Santa Ana's Police Department, for example, expects as much as a 15% budget cut and has had a hiring freeze since October that has resulted in more than 60 sworn and civilian positions remaining vacant, Police Chief Paul Walters said. To offset reductions, Walters plans to convert two multipurpose rooms at the 480-bed jail into dormitory rooms this spring. That will accommodate an additional 32 immigrant detainees, which he expects will bring in $1 million more in revenue each year. He also hopes to get approval to raise the nightly price per detainee from $82 to $87.
"We treat [the jail] as a business," Walters said. "The cuts could have been much deeper if it weren't for the ability to raise money there."
When Santa Ana received bond money to build a police headquarters and jail, it did so with the future in mind. Rather than constructing a facility to house its own inmates, it built a much larger facility and soon started contracting with Orange County and state and federal governments.
The federal contracts cover nearly the entire cost of the jail, said Russell Davis, the jail administrator. On a recent day, the jail housed 20 Santa Ana arrestees, 283 U.S. Marshals prisoners and 165 immigration detainees. Some of the detainees, from Mexico, Vietnam, El Salvador and elsewhere, had landed in immigration custody after serving state prison sentences. Others were arrested after ignoring deportation orders or because of criminal records that made them eligible for deportation.
The contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency brought in more than $3.7 million in 2007 and $4.8 million last year.
If he had to do it all over again, Davis said, he would have built another floor on the jail.
The immigration agency "is inundated with detainees," he said. "If I had 100 more beds, they'd fill them."
Immigrant detainees stay in the local jails anywhere from a few hours to many months. At most jails, they are not separated from the rest of the population.
Not everyone is as pleased as Davis over those arrangements. Immigrant rights advocates have raised concerns about local jails not following federal detention standards and not segregating detainees from people suspected of committing crimes.
"Immigration detention is civil, not criminal," said Ahilan Arulanantham, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "If you are holding them in the same place, that distinction is meaningless."
Even though the cities may benefit financially, the savings do not get passed along to taxpayers, he said. "We're still paying for it," he said. "It's still a waste of resources to detain people who do not need to be detained."
Several of the foreign nationals housed in Santa Ana said they believed they should be let out on bond rather than incarcerated while fighting their immigration cases, especially if they had no criminal records or had already served their time.
Victor Hidalgo, 36, finished a five-year sentence in state prison on a drug charge before being transferred into immigration custody. Hidalgo, who is from Nicaragua, said he and others have jobs, families and homes here and are not a danger to society.
"We're not national security risks," he said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the jails that house detainees for more than 72 hours -- including in Santa Ana and Lancaster -- are subject to "stringent detention standards" and undergo inspection by a contracted company. Other jails are inspected regularly by the immigration agency.