Immigration officials abruptly announce end to controversial contract at Santa Ana Jail

Under mounting pressure from immigrant rights leaders, Santa Ana officials announced last year their plan to end a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigration detainees.

In preparation, they curtailed the number of beds available for federal detention and said they planned to order a jail-reuse study in an attempt to replace the $340,000 a month the city received under the ICE contract. The hope was to completely sever ties by 2020.

This week, ICE officials beat them to the punch.

Federal officials notified the city on Thursday that the immigration agency intends to terminate its detention contract in 90 days.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) values its longstanding relationship with the City of Santa Ana, but recent actions by the city to drastically curtail the number of beds available at the city’s jail to house immigration detainees meant the existing detention contract was no longer viable or cost effective,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a prepared statement.

The jail is one of the smallest detention facilities that contract with ICE in the Los Angeles area. As of Feb. 23, immigration officials housed 74 immigration detainees at the facility, Kice said. Those left at the facility will likely be transferred to other housing facilities.

The decision by ICE left immigrant rights activists rejoicing and has forced city officials to accelerate their plans.

Councilman Sal Tinajero said he wasn’t surprised to hear the news, stating that he knew there was a strong likelihood that ICE would terminate the contract soon after the City Council voted on Dec. 6 to phase out the agreement. That’s when the city voted to reduce the number of beds available in its jail to house immigration detainees from about 200 to a maximum of 128. Scaling back the city’s contract with ICE also meant shutting down one housing module.

At the same meeting, the city declared itself a “sanctuary city” for people who are in the country illegally. Tinajero believes that may also have played a role.

“It’s my understanding that they were a bit perturbed with the position the city was taking and the rhetoric that was coming out of the council, and a lot of that had to do with [Donald Trump],” Tinajero said. “The president has always threatened to take funds away from sanctuary cities.”

Tinajero said he was fine with federal officials cutting ties with the jail and said the city would find other ways to reuse the facility, perhaps filling up those beds with inmates from other law enforcement agencies.

For now, he said, the city has more than $50 million in reserve to make up for the loss in funds.

As for the 96 full-time employees who assist in operating the jail, Tinajero said he’s certain the city will be able to offer them jobs in other areas, such as code enforcement or parks and recreation.

Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez, who has for a long time been in favor of doing away with the ICE contract because she said it wasn’t a sustainable funding source for the jail, seemed optimistic, too.

“The city has been committed to expediting the termination of the ICE contract. Going forward, it is imperative that we make decisions that ensure sustainable city operations, including those at the existing jail facility,” Martinez said in a prepared statement.

Christina M. Fialho, a Costa Mesa attorney and executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a national group that coordinates jailhouse visits with immigrants in detention, said she was happy about the contract’s termination. She noted that her group had been concerned about the treatment of detainees held at the jail and urged ICE to release the remaining people who are detained under the federal government’s agreement.

“If ICE is unwilling to do this, we urge the Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at [the Department of Homeland Security] to intervene and ensure the release of all asylum seekers eligible for parole,” Fialho said.

CIVIC had filed a federal complaint against Santa Ana and ICE, claiming that immigrant women — including transgender women — were subject to unlawful and degrading strip searches at the Santa Ana Jail.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Twitter: @thecindycarcamo

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