Facing an economic crisis, the McFarland City Council voted to allow a private prison company to convert two state prisons into detention centers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a virtual meeting Thursday.
In two 4-0 votes, with Councilman Stephen McFarland recusing himself due to a conflict of interest, the council voted to allow the immigrant detention centers.
The issue has generated fierce debate in the city.
Interim City Manager Larry Penell laid out the city’s position early in the meeting. He said the the detention centers would generate $500,000 in mitigation fees and $50,000 in direct support to police and fire support. With the city in dire financial straits, he said McFarland could hardly afford to lose $36 million in local payroll and $500,000 in property taxes.
He urgently recommended the city adopt the proposition.
“Let’s allow these out-of-town protesters to return to their communities while we accept to save ours,” he said, referring to the individuals and groups who have opposed the facilities.
The private prison company, GEO Group Inc., had submitted two proposals for permit changes for the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility and the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility, which had been used by the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation for state inmates.
GEO proposed to convert both 700-bed facilities into annexes of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, which it also operates for ICE.
The McFarland Planning Commission initially denied GEO’s proposals. After a large showing of protesters attended a meeting in February, a pair of tie votes by the commission doomed the effort.
However, GEO appealed the Planning Commission’s decision directly to the City Council, bringing the issue before the governing body on Thursday.
GEO Vice President David Venturella spoke in support of the company during the meeting. He said GEO would support the community with the two facilities, not only through taxes and usage fees, but also by providing 420 jobs locally.
He also promised a $1,000 scholarship to all graduating seniors in the city moving on to college or vocational school from the moment the detention centers opened through the duration of their 15-year federal contract.
Multiple advocate organizations and residents opposed the detention centers, saying GEO and ICE’s values did not match the Latino-majority community of McFarland, and residents would grow more fearful — potentially to the point of leaving — if ICE expanded into the city.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California sent a letter to city officials, saying an April 9 council meeting in which the public could not attend in person violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and they anticipated further violations during Thursday’s meeting.
Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Freedom For Immigrants also sent a joint letter to McFarland officials, claiming public notice requirements had not been met in violation of state law. The groups said the state requires cities to wait 180 days after first posting public notice about potential use changes for buildings by private corporations before acting on the proposed change. The letter says McFarland first posted notice in January, well short of the 180 day requirement.
“GEO officials have justified their presence in the McFarland community largely on economic grounds,” Freedom For Immigrants Policy Monitor Cynthia Galaz wrote in prepared comments for the meeting. “GEO promises jobs and economic stimulus. But in reality, GEO only delivers bad, underpaid jobs and fails to deliver on its promises for community investment.”
In addition, the groups claimed the City Council was required to hold two public meetings before approving the permits. Although the Planning Commission held two meetings, the groups said the City Council needed to hold two additional meetings as well.
Both letters brought up the possibility of litigation if the city failed to their demands, raising the prospect of a protracted legal fight.