A new law may result in the closure of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, although experts say the federal immigration agency could find a workaround to keep the detention center open.
State lawmakers passed the Dignity Not Detention Act in 2017, which prevents cities and counties from entering into contracts with federal agencies or private corporations for the purpose of housing noncitizens in detention.
“This law was pretty groundbreaking,” said Liz Martinez , director of communications for Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit organization that advocated for the bill. “It stops any sort of local governments in being complicit in the creation of new contracts.”
That could be bad news for ICE, which houses immigrants in Mesa Verde through a complex network of agreements that could now be in jeopardy due to the new law.
ICE entered into a contract, known as an intergovernmental service agreement, with the city of McFarland in 2015 to use the detention facility located in Bakersfield.
“They are very, very common,” said Susan Long, co-director of Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, known as TRAC, an organization at Syracuse University that tracks immigration statistics across the United States. “It turns out that this is a source of revenue that some counties and cities rely on.”
Since 2015, ICE has paid McFarland about $35,000 a year, and in return, McFarland has contracted Geo Group Inc., a private prison company, to detain immigrants for ICE.
All was going well until the McFarland City Council voted in closed session about three months ago to pull out of the agreement, providing no explanation for their decision.
The decision will take effect near the end of March, and it appears to put ICE on a collision course with the Dignity Not Detention Act. The new law seems to prevent the federal agency from partnering with the county or any city in California to keep Mesa Verde open.
“It definitely changes the future of the facility,” Martinez said.
Neither ICE nor Geo returned requests for comment.
The law also prevents immigrant detention centers that have contracts with cities and counties from expanding, which is potentially important in Bakersfield.
Geo recently purchased and demolished the Bakersfield Dome, which was next to its facility on Golden State Avenue. Since the purchase, rumors have swirled that the company plans to use the land for additional detainee housing.
Geo has denied the rumors, and the law seems to indicate they could not expand even if they wanted to.
But despite the new law, many wonder how it will apply in the Mesa Verde case.
“It would be unfortunate, but not out of character, for these private prison companies to circumvent state laws,” Martinez said.
Long said ICE could directly contract with a private prison company like Geo to run a detention facility, potentially allowing Mesa Verde to stay open.
Mesa Verde is one of 10 detention facilities used by ICE in California, according to ICE’s website.
It houses 300 men and 100 women in various stages of the immigration legal process. Some in the facility are in the process of applying for asylum, although not all, volunteers who visit Mesa Verde say.
If Mesa Verde closed, the detainees would most likely be housed in a different facility elsewhere in the state, potentially farther away from family, friends, lawyers and the site of their legal proceedings.