'It's not a victory if it's a transfer,' activists react to termination of ICE contract with jail

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With regular prayer vigils and protests to “Abolish ICE” held in front of the West County Detention Facility, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday announced that its federal contract to detain undocumented immigrants in a Richmond jail will be terminated.

The Bay Area News Group was the first to report the story. 

"Long term, the contract is just not sustainable,'' Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston said at a news conference. He cited money and public pressure as two of the main reasons to end the contract in four months. He would have had to ask the Board of Supervisors for more money to make up for fluctuating ICE contracts and he didn't think he'd get the approval. Supervisors have assured him they'll make up for the $2.4 million that will be lost when the contract ends.

“To be very fair, one has to acknowledge a growing chorus of individuals within and outside the county that have focused on undocumented immigrant issues,” Livingston said.

But as some cheered the move to end the contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, others worried that this decision will make it much harder for families in Northern California to visit their loved ones awaiting court dates and asylum hearings. The West County Detention Facility is the only Bay Area jail that houses undocumented immigrants. 

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who has no oversight of the jail, said this cessation has been "in the works for a while." 

Butt said that in terms of public perception, “this is a good thing for Richmond. We don’t want ICE here.” 

Others feel the same say. The movement to cut ties with ICE is growing, county jail by county jail. Monterey County cut ties to ICE last December and last month, the Sacramento County jail also severed ties. Jails in Texas, Oregon, Virginia and other counties have also decided to stop contracting with immigration enforcement because of growing discomfort, and public pressure, with the Trump administration’s immigration policies. 

“It just felt inherently unjust for Sacramento to make money from dealing with ICE,” Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor who joined two colleagues in canceling the contract, told the New York Times. “For me, it came down to an administration that is extremely hostile to immigrants. I didn’t feel we should be part of that.”

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said in a statement: “The decision to no longer house ICE detainees at the West County Detention Facility will negatively impact local ICE operations. However, the impact will be greater for those who would have been detained at the facility.  Now, instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination.”

When the Richmond facility closes, the closest detention facilities will be the Yuba County Jail in Marysville or the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, both in California. But ICE can transfer detainees anywhere at any time. 

“This is not a victory if it’s just a transfer,” said Rev. Deborah Lee, executive director of the Oakland-based Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. “We want people released.” Her organization has been one of the most vocal against detentions. Once a month since April  2011, her group has held prayer vigils in front of the detention facility, asking for the release of the detainees and highlighting individual stories.

Her group advocates that immigration detainees can await their court dates at home, not behind bars.

The pending termination of the ICE contract has not been good for the family of Raul Lopez, who has been held in the Richmond facility for 17 months. His family’s story was made public when his daughter, Alexa, held her quinceanera outside the jail on June 9.

On June 21, Lopez was moved to an ICE facility in Colorado with no warning, said his wife Dianeth Lopez. “This is very difficult,” Lopez said in Spanish, as Lee translated. “We can’t see him anymore.”

She learned of his transfer three days later. She can't say for sure why her husband was transferred, but she had heard talk of the severed ICE contract a while back.

Lopez now works two jobs to care for her two children and speaks to her  husband by phone. 

Lopez already had a pending immigration case when he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In March 2017, Lopez went to a check-in appointment at the San Francisco ICE office, where he was taken into custody and has remained in custody since.

The family is worried because the contract termination will move other detainees even farther away from their loved ones.

“It's horrible because they're separating lots of families that should be together,” Alexa said.

Lee said she hopes this is an opportunity for ICE to reunites people with their families.

“If ICE is truly concerned about these families, we're asking them to look at each and every case and find a way they can be released on one of the many alternatives to detention,” Lee said. “There's no reason people have to be detained for years while they wait for the court date to show up.”

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office has held a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service since 2009 to house undocumented immigrants awaiting hearings at the West County Detention Facility. As one of its selling points to the community for keeping the ICE contract, the sheriff said on its website that having the facility in Richmond allows some detainees “to remain in the Bay Area, closer to their families, rather than at a remote jail somewhere out of the county or the state.”

As part of that contract, ICE pays the sheriff’s office $82 per detainee a day. According to the sheriff’s office, an average of 200 people are detained at the jail daily. The county annually collects about $6 million, netting a profit of $3 million, according to the sheriff’s office’s website. The sheriff also added: “This revenue reduces the local taxpayers’ burden for the overall operating costs of the Office of the Sheriff.”

On its website under a section called “Immigration Myth vs. Fact,” the sheriff reiterates that the jail is simply a place to hold ICE detainees. “The Office of the Sheriff does not participate in enforcement sweeps, immigration-based investigations, or operational campaigns with ICE.”

Supervisor John Gioia, who attended the news conference, thanked the sheriff for listening to the community on ending the relationship with ICE. He said he hoped that instead of transferring detainees across the country, ICE would allow many of them to be released to their families and remain on bond.