Tony Amarante’s home in Bakersfield is about an 8-minute drive to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility. He has volunteered there on occasion to visit detainees. But recently he’s been housing immigrants who’ve been released from the facility.
“This is my kid's old room,” Amarante says. “I’ve had three asylum seekers stay here. I’m happy to offer them some shelter, a bathroom and get them on the bus or airplane or wherever we got to go.”
There’s a nightstand in between two twin beds and remnants of a teenager’s life, like a lava lamp and a “Legal Legends” poster. His last guest stayed here last week.
“I got a text Monday morning,” Amarante says. “A young man, an asylum seeker, and he had to get on a plane to Chicago. Poor kid doesn't speak any English. Kid's from El Salvador. He’s got a small child too and he was separated from the baby at the border.”
But, a state law that went into effect last year could block the facility from operating. Although most immigration advocates want the facility shut down, Fresno immigration attorney Jeremy Clason says there is a benefit to having a detention center in the San Joaquin Valley.
“There is a benefit to having a detention center close by, there just is,” Clason says. “It is a benefit for immigrants to be able to visit their families who are detained and it’s a benefit to have easy access to a lawyer.”
SB 29, or the Dignity Not Detention Act, says a for-profit detention facility, like Mesa Verde, can’t amend or create new contracts with cities or counties to operate.
The City of McFarland has a contract with the GEO Group, the company that oversees Mesa Verde, to run the facility in Bakersfield. That contract is going to expire on March 19 because the city council voted in closed session to pull out of the agreement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also has an intergovernmental service agreement, or an IGSA, with the City of McFarland to operate. ICE needs to have a contract like this with a public agency to operate detention facilities in a city or a county, according to federal law.
“We’re all sort of like on eggshells,” says Ambar Tovar, an immigration attorney for the UFW Foundation in Bakersfield. “Waiting for the email, waiting for that call that’s going to tell us, ‘We know something of what's going to happen.’ So we then know how to prepare the people that we meet with.”
She says if Mesa Verde closes detainees would most likely be transferred to other facilities. That could be somewhere in California, Tovar says, or out of state.
Tovar helps run the Removal Defense Program that launched last June, and she says its main focus is getting people released from Mesa Verde. On a monthly basis the UFW Foundation and Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services agency, go to Mesa Verde to provide detainees with legal services. Tovar says they see up to 80 people in one day.
“So, that is a service they potentially would not have in another location if that service is not available there,” Tovar says.
There isn’t another service like the Removal Defense Program in Kern County, Tovar says. Many detainees don’t have and can’t afford legal counsel.
For the clients she does take on, Tovar says they wouldn’t be able to keep representing them if Mesa Verde shut down and her clients were transferred.
“Having to represent somebody that’s out of state is just logistically, and also ethically, there's an impediment there,” Tovar says. “We wouldn’t necessarily be able to represent them to our fullest capacity because they are so far away.”
The UFW Foundation estimates about 20 to 25 percent of the people detained in Mesa Verde are Kern County residents. And about 60 percent are California residents. Clason says detainees can save thousands of dollars with a local attorney.
“Before Mesa Verde was here we had the other 9 detention facilities in California, and I was driving more often to Elk Grove, and I was driving more often to Adelanto, and I was driving to Eloy and Florence, Arizona for immigrants detained here in the Valley,” Clason says.
Clason says he isn’t advocating for Mesa Verde to stay open. But he says if Mesa Verde closed, most people would be transferred out of San Francisco’s immigration court.
“If having the detention center there is a quote-on-quote "evil thing," the silver lining of having it there is simply that Mesa Verde is within the jurisdiction of the San Francisco or the Los Angeles immigration court, and both of those courts are the most favorable immigration courts to immigrants,” Clason says.
He says it’s a “blessing” to practice immigration law within San Francisco’s jurisdiction.
“The judges are the most understanding and sympathetic to the plight of immigrants,” Clason says. “They are the most understanding, in my opinion, of family dynamics.”
Last week, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra released a report detailing the poor conditions inside the 10 detention facilities in the state. Overall it says detainees aren’t allowed outside enough, there’s limited access to health services, legal counsel, and little family contact.
The report also says it’s “unclear” if Mesa Verde will remain open.
“The fact that the attorney general himself is not able to have a clear answer just, I mean, probably gives you some idea as to how these contracts are just at the federal level,” Tovar says. “And how these are conversations that are perhaps happening in closed doors between the Department of Homeland Security and these private corporations that are running these detention centers.”
The warden at Mesa Verde declined to comment. The GEO Group referred questions to ICE.
In an emailed statement, ICE officials say, ”ICE plans to continue to use the Mesa Verde Detention Center as long as a viable contract is in effect with the facility. ICE will continue to explore all options to continue the use of all current facilities.”
Jeannie Parent is a volunteer at the organization KWESI, or Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants. She goes to visit detainees at Mesa Verde on a weekly basis, and says, “I would like to see it close, but I really want to have transparency about what’s going to happen.”
But, private facilities like Mesa Verde are also more resistant to transparency than public facilities, says Liz Martinez, director of advocacy and communication for Freedom For Immigrants, one of the organizations that helped draft SB 29. Their goal is to end immigration detention.
“They sort of operate as if they’re above the law, and that they don’t have to follow any of the ICE guidelines or any of the basic standards, or decency almost that you would expect,” Martinez says. “It is really deeply alarming.”
In the meantime, the UFW Foundation launched a fundraiser Friday to help people pay their bonds, so as many people as possible can be released if Mesa Verde does close. Tovar says there are “a lot” of people who have been granted bond but can’t afford it.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Do you support or are you against Mesa Verde closing?’ It’s so difficult to take a straight answer position,” Tovar says. “In an ideal world, yes, we would not have immigration detention centers. I don’t believe in them.”
But they do exist, Tovar says, and there’s one “in our backyard here in Bakersfield.”
For the record the law firm Clason practices with, The Yarra Law Group, is a corporate sponsor of Valley Public Radio.