California took another major step this week to protect immigrants, preventing detention centers from adding more beds and pledging to spend $1 million to make sure people have proper access to food, medical care and lawyers.
Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra announced that he would use the resources to launch a formal review to ensure all immigrants civilly detained in California are treated humanely and that their rights are respected.
“California will stand up even if some other parts of the country won’t,” said Becerra, who spoke at a San Francisco news conference Friday with lawmakers and immigrant advocates. “We have a right — in fact, we have an obligation — to make sure the people are afforded the treatment and respect that any of us would expect under the law.”
The measure, folded into the new state budget approved Thursday, would require the California Department of Justice to audit each facility annually and report its findings to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature by March 2019, with reviews until 2027. It is part of a wider effort by Democratic lawmakers to push back against the Trump administration and its pledge to increase deportations of those in the country illegally.
California has nine immigration detention facilities operated through contracts with cities, counties and the state. Some are run by private companies. Only one — the Otay Mesa Detention Center near the border with Mexico — is a private facility and houses about 3,800 detainees, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) helped craft the state budget-related measure, which specifically places a temporary ban on local governments and law enforcement agencies from entering into, renewing or modifying a contract with the federal government to expand the number of beds used for people detained in civil immigration proceedings.
It dovetails with another bill by Lara that seeks to ensure detention centers in California meet national standards and would ban cities from contracting with private companies to detain immigrants on behalf of federal authorities. That proposal remains under discussion by the Legislature.
“We can’t fully stop what is going to happen at the federal level,” Lara said. “But at the very minimum, whether you are for immigration or not, we have to make sure there is proper oversight.”
ICE would not comment on the pending proposal or legislation. But an agency official said placing limitations on its detention options in California would mean ICE would have to transfer detainees to facilities outside the state, farther from family, friends and legal representatives.
A state Senate budget subcommittee first debated the proposal in May. It followed a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which found hundreds of immigrant detainees housed in Orange County’s largest detention facility were served spoiled food, given mold-covered shower facilities and offered phones that didn't work.
The issue took on new urgency for some lawmakers after nine deaths were reported at the privately run Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, where detainees led brief hunger strikes this month over claims including inadequate medical care and poor food, and amid news reports that Yolo County officials had been housing migrant teens indefinitely.
The budget measure is the latest in a legislative package that aims to improve conditions for detainees and increase legal defense and protections for immigrants. A second proposal passed as part of the state budget on Thursday would allocate $45 million to a coalition of legal services agencies, immigrant rights groups and faith-based organizations called One California.
The $30-million legal assistance program, run by the state Department of Social Services, was first assembled to help thousands of immigrants apply for naturalization and former President Obama’s deferred action programs. With the additional money, providers will also be able to help immigrants fighting deportation or removal proceedings.
Federal immigration agents have arrested more than 40,000 people since President Trump signed executive orders in January to expand the country’s immigration enforcement priorities, a 38% increase over the same period last year.
Thomas Homan, ICE’s acting director, has said the Trump administration expects next year to hold about 51,000 detainees on a given day. He told members of Congress this week that more detention space is needed to carry out more deportations, saying anyone in the country illegally faces removal.
"If you are in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried," he said Tuesday at a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee.
In a legislative floor debate at the state Capitol on Thursday, some Republican lawmakers opposed Lara’s budget measure, saying it would cost counties millions of dollars in contracts and split families. But Lara said the state has to send a clear message that detainees will be treated humanely.
Lara said he felt Homan was using rhetoric seen only in the worst dictatorships.
“It’s pretty gangster,” he said. “The ICE director is saying we should watch our backs.”