State and Local Governments Opt Out of Immigrant Detention

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center is seen in Los Angeles, July 2019.

The number of immigrants detained in the United States has increased nearly every year for 25 years, ballooning from roughly 6,700 people in 1994 to nearly 53,000 this July. Though detention has expanded steadily throughout the decades, the current administration boasts the sharpest increases.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency tasked with overseeing and implementing policies related to immigration detention, contracts out a large portion of its detention capacity to state and local governments; in fact, the majority of ICE detention facilities are contracted through intergovernmental service agreements (IGSAs) with localities. And because local governments can then subcontract with private prison companies to operate these detention facilities and, sometimes, their own local jails that also hold civil immigration detainees, this process allows ICE to circumvent the usual and more rigorous federal bidding and contracting procedures required to contract with private companies directly.

But lately, some state and local governments are resisting this expansion. Localities in states ranging from Virginia to California are cutting ties with ICE detention facilities, while state legislatures are passing bills to push back against immigrant detention statewide. Resistance at the state and local levels has gained momentum as poor detention conditions become more publicized, with communities increasing the pressure on their local and state representatives to end ICE contracts. Reports of inadequate medical care, sexual abuse, and deaths in detention centers across the country have sparked national and community outrage. State and local governments are reexamining their role in immigrant detention, and a growing number are opting to end it.

In light of this shift, this column provides examples of efforts at the city, state, and county levels to resist immigrant detention in their communities, followed by a brief summary of lessons learned from these actions that illustrate the importance of continuing such efforts in the future.

Local actions

Localities in states across the country are backing out of contracts with ICE along with the subsequent subcontracts with privately run detention centers, extracting themselves from the detention of immigrants in their jurisdictions.

Adelanto, California

Over the past year, a number of cities and counties in California have ended their detention agreements following the passage of a statewide law solidifying a ban on local governments and law enforcement from entering into new or expanding existing contracts for ICE detention beds. It also banned any “city, county, city and county, or a public agency” from issuing a permit for any new construction of such a facility. This set the stage for local governments to remove themselves from the contracts altogether when they were up for renewal.

This spring, the city of Adelanto terminated its IGSA with ICE, along with its subcontract with the facility’s managing private prison company, extracting itself from the arrangement that helped create the largest civil immigration detention center in California. The previous fall, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reported inadequate medical care and conditions that violated ICE’s own detention standards in the Adelanto facility, including nooses found in detainee cells and a history of suicide attempts.

Even so, Adelanto’s decision to terminate its contract has not resulted in the closure of the facility. Rather, it forced ICE to contract directly with the prison company that runs the facility to keep it operational for the next year while the agency examines its options under the new state law. ICE has so far avoided transparency concerning any changes to the facility’s operations and continues to be unresponsive to community requests for engagement. It is unclear what will happen once the year is up and ICE’s contract ends, but advocates continue to push for increased oversight and accountability as rumors of expansion abound and the city considers its next move. Its options range from refusing to issue land-use permits to prevent the rumored expansions, to rescinding the withdrawal from the contract to maintain a seat at the table.

Williamson County, Texas

Early this year, Williamson County, Texas, also officially ended its contract with a local detention center as well as its IGSA agreement with ICE, in part due to local pressure against the detention of more than 500 immigrant women in the facility, many of whom had been separated from their children during the implementation of federal family separation policies. Advocates amplified the women’s reports of sexual abuse and their hunger strike to protest conditions in the center, pressuring county commissioners to act.

Despite Williamson County’s efforts, the facility has remained open through yet another temporary contract between ICE and the operating prison company. Working through an IGSA had previously allowed ICE to bypass the federal bidding process. But now that ICE is contracting directly with the private prison company—rather than the county—local advocates are questioning why the agency is still being allowed to skip a process that should be standard for federal contracts; they argue that entering into this direct contract should trigger tougher government rules regarding federal contracts. In the meantime, local advocates continue to work with the women detained in the facility and push for accountability for the conditions inside.

While Texas has the highest number of immigrant detention centers of any state in the country with 184 facilities—most of which are run through local government IGSAs—Williamson County is not the only locale to push back. Houston, home to one of the largest immigration populations in the country, is applying pressure on a new facility for migrant children in the area. In a public statement speaking out against the facility, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) wrote, “There comes a time when we must draw the line, and for me that line is with our children.”

State-level actions

The state of California has been at odds with the administration’s immigration policies throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, from outlawing information-sharing agreements between local law enforcement and ICE to the ban on new or expanding private detention contracts. However, California is just one of several states to have acted against ICE detention within its borders, explicitly rejecting the Trump administration’s detention expansion.

Michigan

In February of this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan (D) blocked the sale of a former state prison that would have become a site for a new privately operated immigration detention center set to detain 500 to 600 people. The private prison corporation set to contract out the facility could not ensure that the facility would not hold adults separated from their children, going against the governor’s added restrictions to the development deal. In response to criticism that Gov. Whitmer’s actions had cost the state jobs, a spokesperson for the governor stated that “building more detention facilities won’t solve our immigration crisis, and … separating families doesn’t reflect our Michigan values.”

Illinois

As Illinois braced for the threat of increased ICE raids, it became the first state to ban private immigrant detention facilities altogether, passing a law expanding its ban on private prisons to include civil detention centers, including those holding immigrants. The ban was one of several statewide initiatives to protect immigrants in Illinois and create a “firewall against Donald Trump’s attacks on our immigrant communities,” according to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D).

Conclusion: Lessons learned

State and local cooperation has been a key component of ICE’s rapid detention expansion. Assisting the administration’s hard-line detention strategy is becoming synonymous with complicity in its subsequent abuses, and a rising number of state and local governments are pushing back and cutting ties in the face of increasingly clear human rights violations and added pressure from constituents.

Moving forward, these examples and others serve to build the record and provide valuable lessons for further advocacy on the state and local levels. Of course, not all such efforts are without complications. While some terminated contracts result in facility closures, ending or refusing contracts is not always the end of the story—nor does it necessarily mark the end of a detention center. In cases such as Adelanto and Williamson County, ICE has contracted directly with private companies to keep the detention facilities open, seemingly without going through the proper channels. Alternatively, ICE may choose to move its detention site or those detained there to a jurisdiction with less resistance.

Nonetheless, pushback at both the state and local levels is critical. Successful local campaigns to break ties with detention, often involving the voices of the detained people themselves, and local outcry add to the national narrative of the harms of detention and help lift local voices into the national debate. As the historically high numbers of immigrants in detention continue to rise, these actions are essential in increasing the pressure on ICE and the Trump administration to ramp down immigration detention as well as on Congress to use the power of the purse to increase accountability and impose sensible limits on detention spending.

Lora Adams is an intern with the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.