One of California’s largest ICE detention centers could close. Staff urge Biden to keep it open

People walk by a sign for the Adelanto detention center.
Detainees have complained of inhumane conditions at the Adelanto detention center since it opened in 2011. Employees at the facility are voicing concerns about a possible closure.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Workers at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, one of California’s largest immigrant detention facilities, are urging the federal government not to shut it down next year following discussions over its potential closure, according to the union that represents many of them.

Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said a contract extension by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gives the agency until mid-February to decide the facility’s future.

“This is a major employer in that area,” Erwin said. “If you close a facility like that, it would be absolutely devastating to the local economy and devastating to these workers.”


A former state prison that began operating as an ICE detention center in 2011, Adelanto holds few detainees, though it has a capacity of 1,940. Its population dropped dramatically in 2020 after an outbreak of COVID-19 tore through the facility, prompting a federal judge to order the release of detainees and to prohibit new intakes and transfers.

Adelanto has also faced scrutiny from federal and state watchdogs over health and safety violations.

In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a warning to the GEO Group, the Florida-based private prison corporation that operates the facility, after finding that misuse of a chemical disinfectant spray caused detainees nosebleeds and nausea. A few years earlier, federal inspectors found nooses in cells and overuse of disciplinary segregation. Detainees reported waiting months to see a doctor.

The Biden administration has ended contracts at a handful of facilities across the country, including the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, where dozens of detained women said they suffered medical abuse.

ICE spokeswoman Jenny Burke confirmed the 60-day contract extension, saying the extra time allows the agency and GEO to “evaluate all factors to ensure that appropriate accommodations can be made for both personnel, operations and individuals in custody.”

“While no final decision has been made regarding the disposition of the facility, ICE must consider the effect of ongoing litigation that prevents full use of the facility, likelihood of relief from that litigation, the cost associated with maintaining the facility and the operational requirements for effective national detention operations,” she wrote in a statement.


Burke said ICE assesses a variety of factors when contemplating changes to the detention system, adding that the agency “continues to provide detention capacity in the area of operations at the adjacent Desert View Annex.”

A GEO Group spokesman declined to comment.

On Dec. 20, 2019, days before California enacted a law that would ban private prisons, ICE signed new contracts for Adelanto and six other facilities in the state that could last up to 15 years. The private prison ban was later overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If Adelanto closes, the nearby Desert View Annex, which can hold up to 700 detainees and is also operated by GEO, would remain open.

Advocates said closing the facility in San Bernardino County would be a victory for immigrants and the local community. A coalition of groups called Shut Down Adelanto, which has urged the closure for years, held a news conference Tuesday outside the facility.

“This is an opportunity for Adelanto to really focus on bringing good resources to this city, bringing good jobs to this city, turning the page on incarceration and really building a future that is inclusive of everyone in this community,” said Javier Hernandez, executive director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

Erwin voiced his concerns about a possible closure in a Nov. 29 letter to President Biden, noting that he had learned that the “dramatic underutilization” of the facility could prompt its closure Dec. 19, when the facility contract was up, which would lead to the termination of 350 union members just days before Christmas.

“This Administration considering the closure of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center at a time when capacity is so desperately needed in this area is genuinely perplexing and seemingly counter-intuitive,” he wrote, pointing to the Biden administration’s supplemental budget request in October to fund 12,500 more ICE beds.


Erwin argued that the request was inconsistent with a closure of the Adelanto facility, which is paid for under existing appropriations.

Workers were happy to learn that they would not immediately lose their jobs, Erwin said Tuesday, but they worry about what will happen in the long term. A GEO Group economic impact analysis, which Erwin provided to The Times, shows that the company spent more than $46 million in the city of Adelanto this year, including nearly $40 million in wages.

Daniel Penafiel, a GEO Group sergeant, said he has been with the company for nearly eight years and has lived in Adelanto for more than a decade. The 38-year-old father of two said he and his colleagues are on edge about the potential closure of the facility, which requires up to 500 workers at full capacity.

They assumed the COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted once Biden lifted the national health emergency. Nearly 100 people were laid off in February, he said.

“Adelanto is our home, and I’m the sole provider for the family,” he said. “We all have families and bills, so the uncertainty of where we go to next or how we recover from this loss is what has a lot of us worried.”

Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) wrote to ICE leadership on Oct. 3 urging them to seek relief from the 2020 court order so that intakes could resume. Though the population of detainees at Adelanto has dwindled, the facility has remained fully staffed and operational, he said. ICE guarantees it will pay contractors for a minimum number of beds, regardless of whether they are filled.


“This striking example of exorbitant government waste and resource mismanagement is completely unacceptable,” he wrote, noting that Adelanto is the only detention facility in the country with an absolute intake prohibition related to COVID-19.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said she has called for Adelanto’s closure for nearly a decade. She urged the federal government to act immediately to shut it down.

“It is long overdue for the Adelanto ICE Processing Center’s extensive and deadly track record to come to an end,” she wrote in a statement.

Carlos Castillo Mejia, 52, of El Salvador is one of the six people who remain detained at the Adelanto facility. Castillo Mejia, who has been there for nearly five years and is appealing his deportation at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Friday that the facility was operating as usual, with no indication from staff that it could close.

“I can’t understand how the government has thought to keep this facility open with such a minimal number of people, paying millions and millions,” Castillo Mejia said.