Mesa Verde (copy)

GEO Group Inc. is a private company that operates Mesa Verde.

The company that operates the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center has sued the state to stop the implementation of a law that would close for-profit detention facilities throughout California.

GEO Group Inc., which has operated the 400-bed Mesa Verde facility in Bakersfield since 2015, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in San Diego on Dec. 30, 2019. If the company gets its way, a judge could rule Assembly Bill 32 unconstitutional, allowing for-profit prisons to remain open in California against lawmakers’ wishes.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 32 in October, with the intention of phasing out the state’s use of private prisons by 2028. The law prevents the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from entering into contracts with private prisons and it bans changes to existing contracts.

The lawsuit claims legislators used the bill as a transparent response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. GEO said in the lawsuit that the bill itself challenged the authority of the federal government.

“There is a longstanding and clear-cut constitutional principle that individual states cannot regulate the actions and activities of the federal government,” a GEO representative said in an email. “Our challenge to AB-32 is based on the well-established legal doctrine that it is unconstitutional for a state law to prohibit the lawful operations of the federal government or its contractors.”

The law could affect at least 10 facilities in California used by the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the lawsuit, including one in Bakersfield.

Kern County would see a drastic increase in the amount of immigrants held by ICE within its borders if GEO is allowed to continue to operate. The company recently signed a contract with the federal agency to use two private prisons in McFarland for immigrant detention.

In the contract, which lasts until 2034, GEO would use the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility and the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility to hold immigrants for ICE. The facilities had previously been under contract with CDCR to hold prisoners, but with the state backing out of its use of private prisons, they could be used to hold those arrested by ICE.

Each of the facilities have a capacity of 700, meaning Kern County could go from holding about 400 immigrants at Mesa Verde to 1,800.

Activists have condemned the lawsuit as well as GEO’s continued use of facilities in California.

“This lawsuit is yet another shameless attempt by the GEO group to protect its ill-gotten profits, safeguard illicit contracts which violates state and federal law, and undercut the will of the people,” the immigrant rights group Dignity Not Detention wrote in a statement. “Our tax dollars should not pay for immigrants’ suffering.”

GEO said in the lawsuit it would lose about $250 million per year for 15 years if AB 32 forced it to close the private facilities. That’s on top of $300 million the company says it spent purchasing and constructing the sites themselves.

In total, the company claims it could lose $4 billion in capital investments if AB 32 holds.

Newsom has defended the state’s desire to close private prisons. His office told state media it would review the complaint.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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