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Rise in detainees straining system

Times Staff Writer

Aggressive immigration enforcement has led to record numbers of detainees in California and around the nation, prompting the federal government to speed up deportations and increasingly rely on transfers and contracts with local jails and private companies.

The detainee population jumped to nearly 27,900 nationwide in fiscal year 2007, up from about 19,700 the previous year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In California, the population increased to more than 3,700, up from a little more than 3,200 last year.

Two weeks ago, the population surpassed 30,000 nationally and nearly reached 4,000 in California.

The main reason cited for the upward trend is the government’s decision to end its practice of catching immigrants and immediately releasing them.

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Detention is the only way to guarantee that people leave the country when their deportation is ordered, immigration officials said. Fewer than a third of people out of custody leave the country when ordered to do so, despite being under intensive supervision.

“If we have them detained and they are ordered removed, it’s almost a virtual certainty that they will, in fact, be removed,” said Gary Mead, assistant director of the immigration agency’s Detention and Removal Operations.

“Everything short of detention is less effective to one degree or another.”

The number of immigrants deported has risen to more than 261,000 in fiscal 2007, up from about 177,000 two years ago. The 2007 fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

Organizations opposing illegal immigration praise the government for locking up and deporting more immigrants.

“The administration has finally realized they needed to dramatically ramp up their detention capacity if immigration enforcement is ever to be credible,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.

But immigrants and their advocates say the high numbers have led to crowded conditions and have limited some immigrants’ access to medical care.

Detainees at the San Pedro Processing Center on Terminal Island often had to sleep on inflatable beds on the floor and had difficulty getting access to phones, immigrants and their attorneys said.

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The detention center, opened in the 1930s, was temporarily shut down last month for maintenance.

“The overcrowding at San Pedro was crazy,” said former detainee Eugene Peba, who was denied asylum from Nigeria and is awaiting a federal appellate court ruling. “They didn’t have enough employees to take care of the detainees’ day-to-day problems.”

In July, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that populations at four facilities, including San Pedro and a center in San Diego, were over capacity. The report also noted “systemic” problems with telephones in detention centers and isolated problems with medical care and use-of-force policies.

“When the number of people in detention is increasing but the number of people assigned by the government to oversee that detention is not, problems are bound to increase and keep increasing,” said Ranjana Natarajan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

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Immigration officials defended conditions and said there is no overcrowding. In fiscal 2007, they said, the facilities run by ICE were at 95% capacity and the contracted private centers were at 98% capacity. The phone situation has been fixed and the centers’ telephones, along with speed-dial numbers for attorneys and consulates, are checked weekly to make sure they are working, they said.

The agency also has taken several steps in recent months to improve oversight, including working with a private company that provides full-time inspectors and placing outside “quality assurance” specialists at the 40 biggest facilities, authorities said. Previously, inspections were done once a year at each facility.

“When we find a deficiency, we correct it,” Mead said. “I don’t believe we have any systemic problems.”

The immigration agency’s budget for bed space skyrocketed to $945 million last year, up from $641 million in fiscal year 2005.

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The majority of detainees, about 63%, are held at hundreds of city and county jails around the nation. The rest are housed at eight centers operated by the immigration agency and seven private facilities run by companies such as the Corrections Corp. of America and the GEO Group.

The agency releases some detainees on bond or electronic monitoring, depending on the risk of flight.

Because of the cost of maintaining aging facilities such as San Pedro, the immigration agency has no plans to build more of its own detention centers and is considering whether to transfer more facilities to private control. Contracting with private facilities provides two main benefits: flexibility in placing centers where they are needed and speed in getting them open, Mead said.

The agency is also contracting more with city and county jails, which accept immigrants when space is available.

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Advocates and attorneys criticize the government’s reliance on local jails, saying immigrants are being mixed with the regular criminal population. Many immigrant detainees have not committed any crime other than being in the U.S. illegally, they said.

“You have 300 jails running in 300 different ways, and it’s hard for ICE to manage that,” said Natarajan of the ACLU. “There is no training of local jail officials and guards on ICE detention standards.”

But Krikorian said the use of city and county jails is an ideal way to increase detention space without building new centers. “It’s not as if arsonists and bank robbers are being let go to make room for illegal immigrants,” he said. “That is unused capacity.”

Immigrant rights advocates also criticize the use of transfers because they separate families, can delay cases and make it hard for detainees to communicate with their attorneys.

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“Attorneys are constantly complaining about literally losing their clients,” said Alison Parker, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch, who has researched immigration detention.

Fernando Cabrera, a Salvadoran green card holder fighting to stay in the U.S. despite a criminal conviction, said he was transferred suddenly in December 2006 from California to Alabama. Some of his legal papers were lost in the transfer, he said. Cabrera was sent back to California and then to Texas after San Pedro shut its doors.

The immigration agency began transferring large numbers of detainees at the end of 2006, when it created a center to coordinate the movement of detainees. In 2007, the agency spent more than $10 million to transfer nearly 19,400 detainees.

The transfer system enables the agency to balance the population and plan enforcement operations. For example, when more than 1,300 fugitives and criminals were arrested in the Los Angeles area this fall, immigration agents prepared for the influx by locating open beds around the country.

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To keep immigration court cases moving, the agency changes venues in some and relies on videoconferencing in others. Mead said that security concerns prevent advance notification of detainees or their attorneys but that the agency informs attorneys of record as soon as the transfer takes place.

Mead acknowledged that families are affected but said immigrants have access to telephones.

“That’s just an unfortunate circumstance,” he said. “But the reason they are in custody is because of an immigration violation, and that is going to present a hardship on their family regardless of where they are.”

One of the areas of immigration detention that has drawn the most controversy is medical treatment. Since 2004, 66 people have died in custody, including a detainee at San Pedro with AIDS who advocates say died after being denied vital medical care.

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“When there are too many people in a facility, medical personnel are overwhelmed and their ability to respond effectively completely breaks down,” said Parker of Human Rights Watch.

Peba, the Nigerian immigrant, said it was very difficult to get medical attention at San Pedro and at a facility in Lancaster run by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

“It takes months even begging to see a doctor,” said Peba, who said he has post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic wrist pain. “That’s inhuman treatment.”

Immigration officials defend the agency’s medical treatment, saying it spent almost $100 million during fiscal 2007 to treat detainees for myriad physical and mental health issues, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Mead said the agency takes every death seriously but that more than 1 million immigrants have been in agency custody since 2004.

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“Given the number of people that go through our custody and given the fact that many of them do not come from a history of exceptional healthcare and health habits, our mortality rate is extremely low,” he said.

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anna.gorman@latimes.com


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