Opinion: California plays an overlooked part in Trump’s immigration detention gulag

Orange County's Theo Lacy Facility, a county jail that also contracts with the federal government to hold migrants facing deportation hearings.
(ROBYN BECK / AFP/Getty Images)

A new report by the state attorney general’s office confirms what advocates and lawsuits have been telling us all along: The immigration detention system is essentially a network of lockdown facilities in which detainees — many of whom have not been convicted or accused of criminal acts — are held with insufficient access to legal help and, in some cases, basic medical care.

The report was mandated two years ago by the state Legislature in AB 103, which directed the attorney general to inspect immigration detention facilities in California.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra released his first report Tuesday morning, which includes an overview of all 10 privately and publicly operated facilities, and more in-depth looks at three of the public centers: Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, and the West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County, which is no longer being used.

So what’s new in the report? Not a lot that followers of the issue don’t already know from prior investigations and lawsuits. But the confirmation of earlier findings still has value, and the report’s details offer a strong portrait of California’s involvement in this mess.


It’s probably too much to hope for, but maybe folks in Orange County and other jurisdictions that are taking money from the federal government to house undocumented migrants in county-owned facilities might demand some changes.

Trump is depriving people of their liberty in service to a failed policy.

According to Becerra’s report, California facilities detained 74,000 migrants from some 150 countries over the last three years. From the report:

“Although children, women, and men all comprise the immigration detainee population, the most typical profile for detainees housed in California is that of a 25- to 34-year-old male from either Mexico, India, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, who spends an average of 51 days at any given facility. While this is the most common profile in California, through our review, we also encountered immigrants as young as 13 and as old as 95.”


Conditions range from 22-hour stretches in cells to minimum-security style settings with dormitory-style barracks.

But the migrants often are barred from physical contact with visiting relatives, restricted in their access to telephones to call lawyers, and struggle at times for access to mental health and medical care.

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There are limited scenarios in which is reasonable for the government to hold migrants in jail while they await deportation. Some do pose a flight risk. Some are dangerous.


Yet the vast majority are not, and President Trump’s draconian decision to jail as many migrants as possible — including those with legitimate grounds to seek asylum — is grounded not in public safety, but in the belief that it will dissuade others from trying to enter the country.

That hasn’t worked out. Illegal immigration has been declining for years and even after Trump’s stepped-up arrests and detentions, asylum-seekers — a small portion of the total migrant population — have been showing up at the border in increasing numbers.

So Trump is depriving people of their liberty in service to a failed policy, and some California jurisdictions are playing a role in it.