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Contra Costa County cuts ties with ICE, ending contract for jailing immigrant detainees

Contra Costa County cuts ties with ICE, ending contract for jailing immigrant detainees
Contra Costa County canceled its profitable contract with federal immigration officials to house suspects facing deportation at the West County Detention Facility, seen above, in Richmond, Calif. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Contra Costa County is ending its contract to detain immigrants at a jail in Richmond, becoming the third California jurisdiction since last year to cut such ties with the federal government.

Sheriff David Livingston said he’d asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to begin the process of removing detainees from the West County Detention Facility. The contract requires a 120-day notice of termination.

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“Obviously, this action … does not address the larger and more complex issue of federal immigration enforcement,” he said at a news conference this week. “Most of us have compassion for those who come here seeking a better life, but we are a nation of laws.”

Livingston’s decision comes amid increased scrutiny by opponents of the Trump administration’s effort to step up deportations of people in the country illegally.

The Richmond jail has held an average of 200 immigrant detainees a day, generating around $3 million in annual revenue. Livingston said he will backfill the anticipated budget deficit with state and county funds. But he said the contract, in place since 2009, wasn’t sustainable long term, as operating costs for the jail are rising while the reimbursement rate from the federal government remains the same.

Livingston also said the work of the Sheriff’s Office has been overshadowed by the attention the contract brings.

“Managing protests in Richmond [has] become expensive and time-consuming for our staff,” he said. “And to be very fair, one must acknowledge a growing chorus of community groups and individuals, from both within and outside the county, that have focused on undocumented immigrants’ issues. And they raise important concerns.”

The jail had been the target of protesters for months, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The most recent was last month, when more than 1,000 people rallied at the facility against the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said in a statement that the decision will most negatively affect detainees.

“Now, instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination,” she said.

Saira Hussain, staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, sharply criticized the claim, saying ICE has prosecutorial discretion to release anyone in its custody.

“ICE is acting as if their hands are tied,” she said. “It’s truly on them for detaining people in the first place.”

Hussain and other immigrant advocates, including the groups Freedom for Immigrants and the Contra Costa Immigrant Rights Alliance, are calling on the agency to release immigrants in custody at the Richmond jail instead of transferring them to another facility. They are also urging the sheriff to expand visitation hours before the contract ends.

Immigration rights advocates are fundraising to provide detainees with the money needed to post bond for their release and help their families pay for transportation and phone calls to loved ones still locked up.

Under mounting political pressure, other jurisdictions have severed ties with ICE for immigrant detention. The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted last month against renewing its contract. In 2016, Santa Ana officials announced a plan to end theirs, then ICE terminated the contract the next year.

It’s not just in California. Last month, the commission overseeing the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria ended its contract allowing ICE to house immigrant children there. On June 25, officials in Springfield, Ore., terminated the city’s contract with ICE. The next day in Williamson County, Texas, north of Austin, commissioners voted to end a contract for a facility that houses immigrant women.

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The Contra Costa County announcement came the same day that the American Civil Liberties Union filed personal injury claims against ICE over alleged abuse during the transportation of nine women from the Richmond facility to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield.

According to the ACLU, the women spent more than 24 hours in July 2017 being transferred between the two cities, which are more than four hours’ driving distance apart. The women’s feet, waists and hands were allegedly shackled for much of the journey. Some vomited and fainted.

Last year, 27 women detained on immigration charges in Richmond signed a letter complaining about conditions there, the Chronicle reported, saying they were locked up for hours and told to use bags in their cells when they needed to use the bathroom. The Sheriff’s Office investigated and said “nearly all of the complaints were unfounded.”

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