A federal appeals court has overturned a ruling that temporarily blocked two immigrant detention centers from opening in McFarland.
The decision allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fully implement its plan to drastically expand the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center by annexing to former state prisons in McFarland.
Taking advantage of temporary suspension of the lower court’s injunction, ICE had expanded into one of the former state prisons, now called the Golden State Annex. With the latest ruling, ICE will be able to hold detainees in the second, which is now the Central Valley Annex.
Although ICE has reduced capacity at Mesa Verde due to coronavirus concerns, the two new facilities allow the agency to more than quadruple its detention capabilities locally. Mesa Verde can hold around 400 detainees at a maximum, while Golden State and Central Valley both have around 700 beds each. At full capacity, that puts 1,800 immigrant detention beds in Kern County, with the majority in McFarland.
“This detention center isn’t something that should exist in our town,” McFarland resident Maribel Ramirez said in a statement. “We need to keep pushing. We need to keep fighting, together, as a community, so detention and separation of families isn’t a reality in our city of McFarland.”
ICE did not answer The California’s questions about the ruling and GEO Group Inc., the private prison company that operates Mesa Verde for the federal government, did not respond to a request for comment.
The issue came before the courts in a lawsuit on behalf of the citizens of McFarland by two advocacy groups, The Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Freedom For Immigrants, which claimed that by moving forward with the two facilities, the city and GEO violated a new state law designed to prevent the expansion of immigrant detention facilities across California.
“Although the courts failed us and the McFarland community, the Dignity Not Detention Act remains the law of the land,” Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, said in a statement. “The Dignity Not Detention Act and our accompanying lawsuit delayed the opening of the immigrant prisons by nearly 10 months, and the fight is not over. We will continue to pressure our state legislature, Governor Newsom, and our congressional representatives to divest from immigration detention and invest in true community-based alternatives.”
In the lawsuit, ILRC and Freedom For Immigrants lawyers said McFarland officials did not meet three of the act’s requirements when it allowed GEO to annex the two former state prisons by approving two permit changes earlier this year.
The Dignity Not Detention Act requires cities to post a public notice 180 days before the permit changes were executed. It also requires two public meetings to be held and for the public to be able to provide public comments.
The lawsuit argued that the city failed all three stipulations.
The City Council approved the permit changes in April, yet delayed their execution until July 15 to comply with the 180 day notice requirement. The lawsuit claimed the approval itself should have been delayed 180 days.
Even though the Planning Commission held two public meetings before rejecting GEO’s proposal (the company later brought the matter before the City Council on appeal), the lawyers for the plaintiffs said the City Council should also have been required to hold an additional two meetings before it allowed the project to move forward.
Finally, the lawsuit said the April 23 council meeting held over Zoom was not sufficient for the public to provide public comments.
However, a panel of judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in the city and GEO’s favor, striking down the objections brought up in the lawsuit.
“Any technical limitations and difficulties participants experienced during the virtual public meeting did not give rise to prejudice,” the judges’ decision read. “And, any barriers to participation were minimal and consistent with the state’s guidance for conducting public hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With the path seemingly clear for the full implementation of ICE’s plan, more immigrant detainees could be on the verge of being held in Kern County.