On Thursday, city council members in the small California farm town of McFarland voted in favor of converting two privately run state prison facilities into immigration detention centers. The proposal was brought forward by the GEO Group, a publicly traded private prison company that operates prisons and immigrant detention centers. McFarland is home to 15,000 people, and about half of its residents are undocumented, many of whom are farmworkers.
GEO Group — whose previous contract with the city was terminated in the fall after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced steps to end the use of private, for-profit prisons in California — wants to repurpose the 700-bed prisons it currently operates into detention centers for up to 1,400 immigrant detainees. The law would have cost the city $1.5 million a year in taxes and other fees to be paid by GEO Group unless it could convert the prisons into immigration detention facilities, according to The New York Times.
The three-hour virtual city council meeting held Thursday night ended with a 4-0 vote in favor of the GEO Group plan, with one council member recusing himself over a conflict of interest. The meeting was held despite calls from immigration advocates who urged the city to push back the vote on the proposal in the midst of a global public health crisis so that residents could participate and voice their concerns. However, according to Alex Gonzalez, a local organizer with Faith In The Valley, the call was capped at 100 people and many were unable to voice their concerns.
In February, hundreds of residents gathered outside the McFarland City Council, chanting, "No ICE! No GEO! We’re farmworkers, not delinquents," The New York Times reported at the time. Residents spoke out against the plans at the City Council commission meeting that night, telling city leaders to find another way to deal with its economic setbacks, but that an immigrant detention center is not the answer — especially right now.
"People have lost their jobs, people are worried about putting food on their tables, and worried about healthcare," Gonzalez said. "And now you have this added anxiety of these detention centers possibly coming into McFarland."
The city’s vote on Thursday night to expand its immigration detention capacity comes at a time when the country has seen an increase in urgent community organizing around decarceration. Prisons are seeing some of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases outside of hospitals, with people in close proximity to one another and with little access to protective equipment, like masks, as well as inadequate access to healthcare.
At Chicago’s Cook County Jail, at least 276 incarcerated people and 172 workers tested positive for coronavirus earlier this month. In Indiana, 92% of inmates that were tested at Westville Correctional Facility saw positive results. California prisons are no different — they saw a spike in coronavirus cases around the same time, with the number of infections up by more than 700 percent in just one week.
In immigrant detention facilities across the county, the case is also dire. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have confirmed 72 coronavirus cases. An outbreak at an ICE detention center could easily overwhelm the system, as they are often located in rural areas with limited access to healthcare facilities, The Intercept reports.
And, some of this effort is already documented. A 2016 Nation investigation determined, for example, that several immigration detention facilities run by GEO provided inadequate healthcare to people detained there — and that was before the pandemic. Now, detained persons say they are being denied access to masks, even as the White House has put out guidelines requiring them.
“I do not want to die somewhere like this, in an ICE detention center,” 56-year-old Salomón Medina-Calderón told The Marshall Project. Medina-Calderón is nearly blind and has diabetes. “My wish is, for (my) last moments—days or years, I don't know, it depends—to be with my family to have an end close to my family,” he said.
Immigration rights advocates have been taking action to release as many people as possible. Anti-ICE protestors and communities calling for people to be released from prisons have held in-car protests in cities across the country, including in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans. On the legal front, lawyers in California filed a lawsuit in April in federal court seeking the release of 13 immigrant detainees with chronic medical conditions.
Earlier this month, ICE said it had released nearly 700 people from detention facilities after evaluating their "immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns." As recently as this Thursday, the Adelanto ICE Processing Facility north of Los Angeles was ordered to reduce the number of people held at the detention center, following a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Latham & Watkins.
As for McFarland, the community will continue its fight against the GEO Group. "My heart breaks at the thought of what may become of my home. A hard-working community living in fear. I think of my friends and neighbors, who are undocumented, but are now deemed 'essential workers' risking their lives to feed a country that wants to put them in cages," Esmeralda Gonzalez, a longtime member of the McFarland Community told Refinery29. "Let’s not give up, I know God is walking with us."