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How a Company Built the Only Immigrant Detention Center Able to Expand in California

Three years since it opened, the Otay Mesa Detention Center is now nearly at capacity with immigrant detainees. It's the only privately owned detention facility in California able to expand. And expand it will as a major uptick of detentions is expected to continue.

The main hallway of the Otay Mesa Detention Center where hundreds of detainees walk through every day. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post has been updated.

In 2010, a private prison company, CoreCivic, spent $10.3 million on seemingly undesirable land in southeastern San Diego County. That land now houses the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The county now values that land at $123 million.

Almost three years since it opened, the center is now nearly at capacity with immigrant detainees — many seeking asylum, others convicted criminals. An ICE officer at the facility has said there are plans to increase the numbers of beds this year by roughly 30 percent.

Thanks to the deal the company struck eight years ago, the immigration detention center is the last in California that can grow after a state bill that goes into effect later this year limits the expansion of for-profit immigrant detention. California’s attempts to improve state inmate conditions may have led to the company’s decision on the land deal, which now gives it more freedom to grow.

There’s a market for more beds. The federal government transformed its approach in detaining immigrants for many years, and President Donald Trump has accelerated those trends. Put simply, more people will be held and, eventually, there will be fewer places in the state where they can go.

CoreCivic has had tremendous foresight over the past few decades. Nothing reveals that like the Otay Mesa Detention Center, the newest immigration detention facility in the country.

In 1997, a CoreCivic lease with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department allowed the company to construct the first immigration detention facility in San Diego County, home to miles of shared border with Mexico and two ports of entry.

After that lease expired, the company moved onto private property and began directly contracting with ICE, which limited state efforts last year to hinder its expansion.

In 2018, the facility will  begin to expand with plans to potentially double the number of beds in the next few years, according to ICE. The plans come as ICE predicts a massive increase in detainees and has started seeking opportunities for new facilities throughout the country.

“We’re getting closed to our capacity, which forces us to divert to whichever other facility in the country has open beds,” said Mark Paramo, the ICE Supervising Detention and Deportation Officer in the Otay facility. “We’re getting to the point where we’re getting maxed out throughout the country.”

At capacity, the Otay facility holds roughly 1,500 detainees. It’s nearly full, because of the surge of asylum seekers coming to the U.S.-Mexico border over the past few years and because of shifts in policies under the new administration that have led to more and longer detentions as people await their immigration hearings.

Roughly 1,000 of those held in the facility are ICE detainees awaiting immigration hearings and another roughly 300 individuals are in the U.S. Marshal’s custody, Paramo said.

Inside, those detained by ICE await deportation proceedings, asylum interviews, bond hearings and other immigration-related decisions. While many in the facility made the journey to Tijuana to turn themselves in to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum, others may have had a green card, visa, or some type of legal status for years but committed a crime that caused ICE officials to try to revoke their standing in the United States.

A detainee gets patted down by an officer at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

 

Detentions are up. Under the Trump administration, roughly 61 percent of people with immigration cases were detained, compared to only 27 percent under the Obama administration, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has predicted a surge in its daily population of detainees, from around 34,000 in July to more than 51,000 over the next year — and for-profit prison companies are happy to accommodate. ICE is also considering additional detention sites throughout the country, according to requests posted on a federal contracting website in October.

The Otay facility has plans to expand. Otay Mesa will be adding 572 beds in 2018, replacing what is now a soccer field, and possibly another 985 beds in 2020, Paramo said. The 2018 expansion will be for U.S. Marshal beds. The additional beds that could be built later could be for either ICE or the Marshals, depending on need.

It’s the only facility of its kind in California that can continue to grow.

Privately-run facilities, like the Otay Mesa Detention Center, house most of ICE’s detained immigrants. According to a 2016 Homeland Security Advisory Council report, only 10 percent of ICE detainees are in federally owned and directed facilities. The vast majority, 65 percent, are in facilities operated by private companies and the remaining 25 percent are in facilities operated by county or state governments.

After Trump’s election, stocks for CoreCivic and the GEO group – the other large private prison company in the United States – shot up. Back in October, CoreCivic reported to investors that migration across the border had started to tick back up — and that more immigrants were filling its detention centers.

“If this trend continues,” CEO Damon Hininger said, “it is likely ICE will have additional detention capacities for interior enforcement…as well as in traditional Southwest border regions.”

California has limited the private prison companies’ business more than in states like Texas, for example.

In addition to perpetual barriers like high land and building costs, the California legislature took steps last year to make it even more difficult for those companies.

One bill passed that would phase out the state’s usage of these private prison companies over the next 10 years. Another bill tried to block the expansion of these private immigration detention facilities in the state.

The three other detention facilities in the state run by for-profit companies will be unable to renew or modify their contracts with local governments, through which they provide detention space for ICE.

Otay Mesa, however, can continue to expand as long as CoreCivic has the space on its property and ICE continues to contract with the facility, though it now has more extensive public hearing requirements. In Otay, CoreCivic — on property it owns — contracts directly with ICE, limiting the reach of the state government in trying to control its expansion.

A Shift in Policy and the End of a Lease

“There’s been a huge transition over the past 30 years,” said Robert Magee, a corrections and homeland security consultant and former ICE officer in San Diego. “The growth of privatized prisons started with immigration.”

ICE — which was known as Immigration and Naturalization Services at the time (the name changed after 9/11) — entered into its first private contract with Corrections Corporation of America, the current owner and operator of the Otay facility. The company has since changed its name to CoreCivic.

The expansion and privatization of immigrant detention has largely reflected shifts in immigration policy. Beginning in the 1980s, but really taking hold after 9/11, the federal government began to enforce legal immigration more diligently and targeted immigrants who committed crimes, Magee said.

“Initially, when I was in Border Patrol in the 80s, we called the detention facilities, which were all ICE-owned, ‘camps,’” Magee said. “The reason we called them camps was an allusion to migrant camps, because that was who was in them.”

San Diego County didn’t even have an immigration detention facility until the late 1990s, when CCA entered into the contract with the Sheriff’s office to use space in Otay Mesa for immigration detainees, said Magee. The closest facility was in El Centro, in Imperial County, which was ICE-owned and operated and has since closed.

“I think it’s interesting that CCA rented the jail from the county on speculation,” Magee said. “Those companies had tremendous foresight.”

Before its new facility opened in 2015, CoreCivic had a lease agreement with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department that dated back to 1997. The company leased the land and constructed its facility in the complex with the George Bailey Detention Facility and East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, less than a mile away from the new space.

Captain Daniel Pena of the Sheriff’s Detention Bureau said that when time came for the sheriff’s department to consider renewing the lease, the department decided to end the contract for several reasons.

The first was that there was a realignment happening throughout the state to reduce state prison overcrowding. That would shift more people to local jails, so the sheriff’s department thought they would need the space.

The Sheriff’s department also planned to expand its mental health services, education services and re-entry services and having the additional facility — close to its other facilities and more modern than the other buildings in the complex — made sense, Pena said.

The department gave up the lease revenue stream and CoreCivic found another way to stay in the immigration detention business in Otay.

The company, when it was named CCA, purchased the nearly 40-acre property where the detention facility now sits for $10.3 million in 2010. The property was formerly owned by Rocky de la Fuente, a San Diego businessman who ran for president in 2016.

The property, with the detention center built, is now worth more than $123 million, according to the County Assessor’s office. As the facility expands, that value will likely grow. There’s also a building boom poised to happen in Otay Mesa in the next decade, especially as a third port-of-entry comes online, which may also increase the property value.

That shift years ago has put the Otay facility in the unique position of being the last remaining facility in the state with the ability to expand, potentially nearly doubling in size by 2020, and has given CoreCivic a valuable property asset in California.

Inside the New Facility

Most of the detainees in the Otay facility are non-criminal detainees.

Paramo said most of the detainees in Otay Mesa are asylum seekers and low-risk detainees — meaning they haven’t committed crimes in the United States aside from immigration-related offenses.

In the Otay facility, officials separate detainees by jumpsuit color. The lowest level, those who have committed no crimes but may be waiting for their asylum interviews or deportation proceedings, wear blue jumpsuits. Medium-level, who may have committed crimes, but likely non-violent and less serious ones, are in orange. High-level detainees, who are considered risky and have committed serious crimes, are in red.

Otay Mesa detainees with red uniforms are considered the most violent and are separated from the rest of the inmates. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The different levels are housed separately and don’t mix in the facility.

The U.S. Marshal detainees are in khaki and some material witnesses held in the facility are in green. These detainees don’t mix with ICE detainees.

Those who were convicted of a crime would have already served the sentence they were given in local jails, state prisons or federal prisons prior to coming into ICE custody.

Detention facilities evolved from having almost no criminals to being majority criminals, Magee said. That means in addition to there being a need for more beds, because of increased enforcement, immigration facilities need to be more secure than before.

That’s how immigration detention shifted overtime from being dorm-like beds surrounded by an 18-foot fence in the 1980s, to facilities like Otay Mesa, which hold detainees in high-security, prison-like conditions, Magee said.

U.S. Marshal detainees — who are not in custody of ICE — wear khaki uniforms. / Phot by Adriana Heldiz

 

But some still question how dangerous many of those with criminal convictions are in the immigrant facilities.

“Since the 80s to the mid-90s, the list of crimes for which you can have your status revoked has grown,” said Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Simple possession of drugs can get you deported. We’ve had green card holders who were deported after having served no time at all.”

This is civil detention, Vakili said. It’s not criminal incarceration.

The lower level detainees are in what Paramo calls “open bay-style dormitories.” That means there is a common area in their housing unit with chairs and tables, where detainees can go, rather than stay in their cells all day. There are roughly 108 beds in these kinds of units.

“How much more freedom can you get being locked up?” Paramo said.

Paramo said that’s one of the benefits of having companies like CoreCivic design modern, new facilities that fit ICE’s specifications. There are also five immigration courtrooms custom-built into the facility.

Indeed, CoreCivic knows its clients.

“CoreCivic has spent decades providing high-quality, humane and cost-effective solutions to the challenges our government partners face,” said CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, Jonathan Burns, in a statement. “Much of the value CoreCivic brings to our government partners is our ability to deliver flexible solutions that meet current needs while anticipating future challenges.”

While Otay Mesa may be a state-of-the-art immigration detention facility, it’s still faced several complaints. Lawsuits have challenged the detention of pregnant women and alleged-forced labor practices. There’s been one death in custody since the facility opened in 2015.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that the Otay Mesa Detention Center’s 2018 expansion will accommodate new beds for the U.S. Marshalls. Later expansions could be for either ICE or the Marshals, depending on need.

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