LOS ANGELES (AP) — A sprawling detention center operated by a private company in Adelanto, a California desert town, has the capacity to hold nearly 2,000 immigrants facing deportation. But these days it looks almost empty.
The Adelanto facility is an extreme example of how the guaranteed minimum payments the US government uses in contracts with private companies to house immigrant detainees can be financially disadvantageous. In those contracts, the government agrees to pay for a certain number of beds, whether they are used or not.
The government pays for at least 1,455 beds a day in advance, but so far this fiscal year it reports an average daily population of 49 detainees. Immigrant advocates say there are currently about two dozen people in the facility there because authorities can’t bring in more immigrants because of a 2020 ruling by a federal judge related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. government pays to ensure 30,000 beds are available for immigrant detainees in four dozen facilities across the country, but so far this fiscal year only about half have been filled, on average, according to with data from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE). Over the past two years, immigration detention centers across the country have been underutilized as authorities were forced to give detainees more space to limit the spread of COVID-19, sometimes by court order, as in Advance case.
“The government is still paying them to keep the facilities open,” said Lizbeth Abeln, director of deportation defense for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition in Southern California. “It is really worrying that they still pay for all the beds every day. It is empty”.
In a facility in Tacoma, Washington, the guaranteed minimum is 1,181 beds, and the average daily population so far this fiscal year is 369, according to official data. A detention center in Jena, Louisiana, has a minimum of 1,170 beds, with an average daily population of 452.
ICE currently reports 23,390 detainees, according to official data. For too long, the agency has wasted money on unused detention space by including guaranteed minimum payments in its contracts, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report focused on the years before the pandemic. The minimum number of guaranteed beds the government paid for rose 45% from fiscal 2017 to May 2020, the report said.
Officials at ICE headquarters were asked for comment and initially did not. On Monday, an agency spokesman said in an email that the agency does not comment on pending litigation and is complying with the court order regarding the Adelanto facility, which is operated by Boca Raton-based The Geo Group. Florida.
In annual budget documents, officials said ICE generally seeks to use 85% to 90% of detention space, paying to have guaranteed minimum beds ready to use should they be needed. Officials wrote that they need to have the flexibility to deal with emergencies or sudden surges in border crossings. They said security is the top priority in detention centers, acknowledging that the pandemic has forced a “great decrease in bed use.”
The average cost of a detention bed was $144 a day during the last fiscal year, documents show.
Immigrant advocates say the pandemic is proof that the United States doesn’t need to detain immigrants as much as authorities have claimed. Deportation agents have increased their use of a tracking app to monitor immigrants before their deportation hearings rather than lock people up, they said. As of June, the agency was tracking more than 200,000 people using the SmartLink app, according to government data.
“The federal government, probably like all of us, didn’t think COVID would last this long,” said Michael Kaufman, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has demanded the release of those detained at Adelanto. “This has been an accidental test case showing that they don’t need a stopping power of the size that they claim.”