Proponents of the for-profit model say it’s more efficient than publicly run options. But efficiency can be cruel, and we’re long overdue for a national conversation about whether we should allow companies to profit off of the detention of immigrants.
A few weeks ago, I visited the immigrant detention center in Adelanto, Calif., some 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, owned and operated by GEO Group. The sprawling property is designed to hold almost 2,000 detainees. In early September, the dry heat was so stifling that detainees kept away from the soccer fields and basketball courts where they are allowed to exercise, making the center feel abandoned from the outside.
The Adelanto center is one of a number of facilities facing reports of safety risks, abuse and neglect. In September 2018, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general published a scathing account of inadequate medical care, “overly restrictive segregation” and other unsafe conditions, including makeshift nooses hanging from vents inside cells. Just over a month ago, a lawsuit cited conditions at Adelanto and other detention centers of punitive confinement conditions and, again, inadequate medical care.
I toured the facility with Thomas Giles, acting field office director for ICE enforcement and removal operations in Los Angeles. Giles explained the inner working of the facility through what felt like a well-rehearsed spiel. He made a point to explain how detainees are given a clean set of clothes and personal hygiene items that can be replaced if lost. He insisted immigrants are fed properly and, contrary to claims, given suitable medical attention.
But Giles was certainly aware of the 2018 report, which suggested Adelanto is more akin to a jail than a civil detention center. So when he showed me the facility’s disciplinary segregation area, he pointed to an Xbox, books and DVDs as proof of comfort. When I asked him if the much-criticized toilet and water fountain combination inside the cells was ideal for hygiene, Giles struggled to answer: “This is living space here — these are the facilities for it.” He repeatedly denied abuses have occurred in Adelanto or that immigrants endure problematic conditions.
Although interactions with detainees were kept at a minimum, I struck up a conversation with Bernardo Sánchez, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago, at the age of 12. Sánchez has since fathered five children (all of them U.S. citizens). He told me that he had been detained while trying to sort out a suspended license after a DUI. He intended to fight deportation but wasn’t optimistic.
Sánchez also told me he had witnessed at least one suicide attempt in Adelanto and seen many detainees taking pills for “depression and loneliness.” He also said he had experienced discrimination: “Officers are often racist. If we need something — they don’t like to be bothered.”
Lawmakers share these concerns. Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), the lawmaker who once confronted former Homeland Security Secretary Kirtsjen Nielsen over family separation, told me she did not trust the pristine conditions I was shown during my tour. “They clean everything when they know we’re visiting,” Barragán warned. “We know, through oversight reports, that conditions in Adelanto are unacceptable.”
Giles denied any claim of racism or abuse. “I believe that the GEO Group … are professionals and they treat the detainees with respect,” he told me. “I don’t believe there is any racism that goes on here.” Anyone who said otherwise, he insisted, would be lying. Giles also told me he disagreed with the DHS report. “We do have a restrictive housing area,” Giles told me. “But they are able to use the phone, they are able to have their contact visits, attorney visits, consulate visits, they can play the Xbox, they can watch movies.”
Before wrapping up the visit, I asked Giles about the controversial for-profit model that allows companies such as GEO Group to benefit from migrant detention. The question should have come as no surprise. Still, as I began formulating the question, ICE public affairs officer Lori Haley interrupted brusquely. “We’re not here to talk about that,” she said. “I’m not going to talk about the money,” Giles concurred.
This is unfortunate. The public needs a frank discussion about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s immigrant detention industry. Most Democratic candidates in the running for their party’s nomination have already recommended banning private detention facilities such as the one at Adelanto. In any case, ICE will have to grapple with the legacy of jailing thousands of immigrants for the benefit of private corporations. History won’t judge the agency kindly.