A group of more than 70 legal service providers and advocacy groups are calling for more transparency of the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility in Bakersfield that could potentially be on the brink of closing.
The GEO Group Inc., which runs the facility, has maintained a silence since the city of McFarland pulled out of an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that provided the legal basis for operations at Mesa Verde.
ICE, which contracted with McFarland to house the detainees in Bakersfield, has issued few public statements since McFarland gave notice in December that it planned to terminate an intergovernmental service agreement it had with the federal agency.
Legal experts say the agreement, known as an IGSA, is required to keep the facility open. Since McFarland terminated the agreement, the fate of the 400 detainees has remained an open question.
“We are profoundly concerned about the fate of the people imprisoned in the Mesa Verde facility, and what the future holds for them,” the group of over 70 advocates said in a collective press release. “The fact that we have not been provided any information about whether they face transfer, relocation, or release, leaves legal service providers unable to mobilize and coordinate the resources that may be necessary if this facility were to be closed.”
In response to a request for comment, GEO directed The Californian to speak with ICE.
ICE said it planned to use Mesa Verde as long as a viable contract remained in effect, but it said it could use other facilities across the U.S. if that no longer became an option.
"ICE does operate a national system of detention bed space and will house detainees in other facilities as needed," Richard Rocha, a spokesman for ICE said in a statement. "If the facility is no longer available, each case will be reviewed and determinations on continued detention and potential transfers will be made on a case-by-case basis."
Many of the detainees inside Mesa Verde, which is located on Golden State Avenue, are in the process of requesting asylum to the United States. Although many come from Central and South America, others came from Africa and Asia, and are in the midst of legal proceedings that could be disrupted if they are moved to facilities outside California.
“Access to counsel is a fundamental right, and any plans to move detained individuals who are in the middle of legal proceedings undermine this right,” the group said in a statement. “The uncertainty with regards to these individuals’ access to local legal service providers disrupts our ability to coordinate representation and violates the due process rights of these individuals.”
A stipulation in the contract McFarland held with ICE gave ICE 90 days before a termination would come into effect.
McFarland notified ICE it intended to terminate the IGSA on Dec. 19, making the possible closure date of Mesa Verde March 19.
Complicating the matter, California passed a law in 2017 that prevented cities and counties from entering into new contracts with ICE to hold noncitizens, which could potentially leave ICE with little choice but to pull out of Mesa Verde.
Yet neither ICE nor GEO have made any indication of what could happen to the facility.
The list of groups that signed the statement included the American Civil Liberties Union of California, as well as other national immigrants rights organizations such as Freedom for Immigrants and local groups such as Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants and the Women’s March Kern County.
The groups demanded that if Mesa Verde was to be closed, that ICE provide an exact timeline for the closure, including what plans exist for the transfer, relocation or release of those detained at the facility.
They also demanded that any detainee eligible to be released be reunited with their families if the facility should close.
Other cities across the United States have shut down immigrant detention facilities after terminating IGSAs with ICE, although the exact number is unclear.
Each time a facility is closed, the detainees are transferred to other detention centers, potentially in other states, which can have the effect of transporting detainees farther from their families.
Some detainees housed in Mesa Verde have family members that live in southern California, according to local volunteers. If the facility closes, they could be moved to locations too far away for their families to visit, which advocates say can put strain on the individuals as well as their families.