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McFarland pursuing agreement with U.S. Marshals to keep private prison in San Diego open | News

The city of McFarland is pursuing an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service that would keep a 770-bed private prison in downtown San Diego from closing.

The financially-strapped city would earn $500,000 through the agreement. In return, the Marshals Service would be able to hold detainees at the site past Sept. 30, when its contract with operator GEO Group Inc. is set to expire.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the McFarland City Council voted to pursue the project. The vote puts McFarland once again in the middle of a nationwide debate over private prisons and immigrant detention.

The city is used to being in the middle of the political firestorm. It was instrumental in allowing the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield to open. The facility recently opened two “annexes” in McFarland, which were converted from two private prisons that had previously held state inmates.

All three facilities are run by GEO.

The company claims its San Diego site, the Western Region Detention Facility, does not hold immigrants accused of entering the country illegally. However, community advocates say some immigrants have been held at the location, and they worry more could be detained there if it is allowed to remain open.

“GEO has been pretty effective in keeping it under the radar, almost nonexistent,” said Adriana Jasso, a program coordinator with advocacy organization American Friends Service Committee. “For us to find out, it took a lot of asking and searching.”

She said her brother was held at Western Region for an immigration violation for three months before he was deported to Mexico.

“It was devastating, but it’s consistent with what we see,” she said. “I think it’s because they have done such a good job of keeping it unnoticeable that there is not enough pushback from the general population yet.”

Without the agreement with McFarland, or potentially another municipality, Western Region is at risk of closure. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January barring the Department of Justice from renewing contracts with private detention facilities. As a bureau of the DOJ, the Marshals Service is unable to renew its contract with GEO, which will expire in little over a month.

However, the Marshals Service can indirectly contract with GEO through a municipality, in an arrangement known as an intergovernmental agreement.

McFarland previously held an intergovernmental agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which allowed the agency to operate Mesa Verde in Bakersfield. The city canceled the agreement in 2018 after an investigation by the California State Auditor and Attorney General found multiple deficiencies and a lack of oversight at Mesa Verde.

The Auditor’s Office said in a report that McFarland and other cities had failed to properly oversee the detention facilities they administered. GEO was the subject of fierce criticism last year after more than half of its detainees at Mesa Verde tested positive for coronavirus.

ICE later directly contracted with ICE to keep Mesa Verde open. The company is also suing Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state of California to overturn a state law that prohibits private prisons in the state.

“As the California State Auditor has found, the federal government has entered into similar contracts with municipalities in California, including McFarland, for the sole apparent reason of evading federal procurement laws,” American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California Policy Advocate Rosa Lopez wrote in an email to The Californian. “This kind of contracting arrangement serves no legitimate governmental purpose.”

In a phone interview, she said the new proposal caught the ACLU off guard, and they were still trying to understand what it could mean.

Officials from both the city of McFarland and San Diego did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A representative for the U.S. Marshals also did not answer questions about a potential intergovernmental agreement.

Although GEO did not respond to questions from The Californian, Senior Vice President David Venturella told the McFarland City Council on Wednesday the U.S. Marshals had “run out of options.”

“They do desire to keep the facility operational,” he said. “It supports a very critical federal law enforcement mission in southern California.”

In the past, McFarland has come under fire for its relationship with GEO. Last year, the city’s Planning Commission initially denied a permit application from GEO that would allow the company to convert the two state prisons in the city into immigrant detention facilities. However, the council overturned the denial despite hundreds of community members protesting the decision.

Any agreement with McFarland would ultimately have to be approved by the White House, giving some advocates hope this effort will ultimately fail.

Still, GEO must first secure the agreement with McFarland before it can think about Washington D.C.

“We just want to set expectations,” Venturella told the council, “that this is just the beginning of the process.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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