The federal government has begun transferring immigrants facing deportation to a new, 400-bed detention center in Bakersfield.
The facility, a former prison, will house immigrants who were taken into custody in the Central Valley as well as some long-term detainees who have been held in other parts of the state, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this post said that the new detention center was located in McFarland, Calif. It is in Bakersfield.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency has needed bed space in the region since a previous detention center there closed nearly two years ago.
The opening of the new facility, she said, "again affords us the option to house foreign nationals encountered in Central California at a facility closer to their families and communities."
But immigrant advocates groups argue that the facility's rural location will make it difficult for detainees to access legal help.
“It’s going to make it virtually impossible for us to represent the detained population,” said Ilyce Shugall, an attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, which helps low-income clients.
Because there are no immigration court judges based in the Central Valley, most immigrants at the new site, known as the Mesa Verde Detention Facility, will have their court hearings via live video feeds.
Advocates are not concerned only about the new facility's isolation.
They have also raised questions about the private prison company that will be paid about $107 per day per detainee to operate the site.
In a news release, Florida-based GEO Group said it expects the facility to generate about $17 million in revenue each year.
GEO operates immigrant detention facilities around the country, including a sprawling jail complex in the high desert town of Adelanto that is being expanded from 1,300 to 1,950 beds. ICE officials have said the Adelanto expansion is necessary to help meet demand for more bed space in the Los Angeles area.
Advocates have accused GEO of neglect, citing the death of Fernando Dominguez, a Mexican immigrant who died of pneumonia in 2012 after being detained at Adelanto. An inspection report by the Department of Homeland Security found the detention center "failed to provide adequate healthcare" to Dominguez.
GEO Group officials said the company's facilities are safe. All immigrant detention facilities are subject to regular federal inspections.
Immigrant advocates have long pushed for cheaper alternatives to detention, including parole-type programs or electronic-monitoring devices. They oppose a rule that for years has required the federal government to pay for roughly 34,000 beds in detention centers each night.
So far this year, actual detention numbers have fallen far below the so-called "bed mandate."
According to Kice, the agency's average daily detainee population is 26,374 for fiscal year 2015. Approximately 13% of the nation's detainees were housed at facilities in California, she said.