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Southern California Jails Addicted to ICE Money

by Matt Clarke

Faced with budget cuts due to the down economy, jails across Southern California have turned to a new revenue stream – immigration detention. The federal government paid over $55 million to house immigrant detainees in California jails in fiscal year 2008. That was up from $52.6 million in FY 2007, and is expected to increase to $57 million in FY 2009.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has the largest federal contract, receiving $32.3 million in FY 2007 and $34 million in FY 2008. It dedicated a 1,400-bed jail in Lancaster to hold immigration detainees.

Smaller cities also got their share. Glendale’s income from federal immigration detention tripled last year to almost $260,000, while Alhambra’s doubled to $247,000.

Santa Ana’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract increased from $3.7 million in FY 2007 to $4.8 million in FY 2008. The Santa Ana Police Department used federal money for holding immigrant detainees to make up for an expected 15% budget reduction and hiring freeze.

“We treat [the jail] as a business,” said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. “The [budget] cuts could have been much deeper if it weren’t for the ability to raise money there.”

To increase the county’s immigration detention “business,” Walters plans to convert two multipurpose rooms at Santa Ana’s 480-bed jail into dormitories and use them to hold another 32 detainees. This should increase his ICE funding by $1 million while no doubt greatly decreasing the jail’s ability to provide rehabilitative programming to its other, local prisoners. Walters also hopes to increase the per diem payments from ICE from $82 to $87 per detainee.

Russel Davis, the jail’s administrator, regrets not having built another floor onto the jail originally. ICE “is inundated with detainees,” Davis said. “If I had 100 more beds, they’d fill them.”

Immigration rights activists have criticized ICE’s practice of using local jails to incarcerate immigrant detainees, because such facilities may not be up to federal standards and may not segregate detainees from prisoners facing criminal charges.

“Immigration detention is civil, not criminal,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California staff attorney Ahilan Arulanantham. “If you are holding them in the same place, that distinction is meaningless.”

Apparently that doesn’t matter to ICE, which has become desperate to find housing for its growing detainee population since it closed the agency’s San Pedro immigration detention facility on Terminal Island in 2007. It also doesn’t matter to cities and counties frantically looking for ways to boost their dwindling budgets.

“We have become very reliant on this revenue,” said Edward Flores, head of Santa Clara County’s Department of Corrections.

Meanwhile, the head of California’s prison system has announced that the state will no longer imprison undocumented immigrants who were paroled, deported and then reentered the U.S. illegally. Previously, such detainees were held on parole violations for 4 to 8 months before being deported again. This cost the state about $10 million a year.

Now, all undocumented immigrants released from California state prisons will be discharged from parole when they are turned over to ICE for deportation. If they reenter the U.S. again they will likely be housed in city or county jails with federal immigration detention contracts, where they are considered a valuable source of revenue.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Union-Tribune,

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