Operator moves to expand detention center for migrants in San Diego County

The main entrance to Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A contractor working for private prison company CoreCivic has applied for construction permits to expand Otay Mesa Detention Center in southern San Diego County, which houses immigrants awaiting court proceedings.

The plans would add 512 beds to the facility through a construction project valued at more than $6 million in the permit application filed in mid-June with the county. That will grow the facility by about 35% from the 1,458 beds it now holds.

Otay Mesa Detention Center is the only immigration detention facility in San Diego County. It contracts directly with the federal government to hold people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody while they wait for hearings in immigration court.


It also houses people in U.S. marshals service custody who are awaiting trial in federal court. The ICE and marshals detainees stay in separate units.

J.E. Dunn Construction Co. of Tempe, Ariz., the contractor listed on the permit application, deferred questions about the project to CoreCivic. ICE declined to comment.

“This expansion was planned when the facility was originally built in 2015 and is not in response to any current situation or policies,” said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for the Nashville-based company. “CoreCivic has historically undertaken system expansions of this type periodically, and we apply for appropriate permits in those instances.”

“At this point, it’s premature to discuss staffing needs or construction deadlines,” CoreCivic spokeswoman Gilchrist said.

Jessica Northrup, a spokeswoman for San Diego County, said staff will review the construction plans to make sure they comply with all applicable codes. She anticipated that the county would provide feedback on the project before the end of July.

If changes need to be made, the company will have to submit them. As projects of this size often require iterations before they are approved, it is difficult to say when the project will receive permits, she said.


The company had to pay close to $22,000 to the county in filing fees for the project, according to county records.

The facility has been hiring in recent months, with groups of hopeful future employees filing in, paperwork in hand, for interviews and background checks.

Under the Trump administration, the number of people in ICE custody has grown 20%, with 41,280 as the average daily population nationwide toward the beginning of May, up from 34,376 in fiscal 2016, according to ICE data.

The number detained by the San Diego field office, which would include immigrants at both Otay Mesa and the Imperial Regional Detention Facility, has risen 17%, from 1,640 to 1,914 in the same time frame.

In the Los Angeles area, the number has risen 4%, from 2,412 to 2,518.

ICE isn’t allowed to detain people as punishment. Detainees could be asylum seekers, unauthorized immigrants or green card holders who were convicted of crimes. All of them have pending cases with immigration judges to find out if they can stay in the U.S.

Companies like CoreCivic have fared well under the Trump administration. In earnings calls with investors, its officials have said increased detention needs from ICE bode well for the company’s financial future.

In resistance to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, California state legislators moved to block expansion or creation of state and local contracts for facilities to house ICE detainees. The law, passed about a year ago, does not affect construction on CoreCivic’s private property.

The office for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher (D-San Diego), whose district includes the detention center, said it may be the only place in the state of California able to expand detention space for immigrants. The office is still researching.

Gonzalez-Fletcher, who has taken a strong stance against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, was upset at the development.

“We are seeking every possible avenue the state can use to try to stop this expansion,” Gonzalez-Fletcher said. “They should know that they are completely unwanted in my community and in our state.”

CoreCivic purchased the dry stretch of land near the Otay Mesa port of entry in 2010 and moved detainees from its previous facility in 2015.

Hundreds recently protested outside the facility on Calzada De La Fuente to condemn the detention of asylum seekers and the Trump administration’s policies that led to separation of families who arrived at the Southwest border.