The End of ICE Detention at WCDF: Blessing or Burden?
Since at least 2009, Contra Costa County has contracted with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to house detained immigrants at the West County Detention Facility. By July 2018 West County was housing about 200 immigrants per day, generating about $3 million in annual revenue. Sheriff David Livingston was quoted as saying that the contract was not sustainable over the long term, as operating costs were rising but the amount of federal reimbursement remained the same. The growing number of protests, particularly the June 2018 rally that drew an estimated 1,000 people to the WCDF parking lot to protest ICE detention, also had an impact. In July 2018 Contra Costa County announced it was ending its contract with ICE. While ICE officials stated that they had to relocate detained immigrants to other facilities, mostly outside of the Bay Area, many immigration advocates argued that detained immigrants who posed no threat to community safety and were not flight risks could have just as easily been released on bond.
I have mixed feelings about the Contra Costa County Sheriff ending its contract with ICE last summer. For years, Contra Costa County housed ICE detainees who were in removal proceedings at the West County Detention Facility. The county, I’m sure, benefited from this contract financially. ICE was able to easily transport these folks for in-person appearances at the San Francisco Immigration Court.
I represented dozens of these detainees in court. I strove to represent these detainees in the most compelling way possible – we talked about children who were born here, their decades-long lives in the United States, their fears of returning to war-torn countries, and oftentimes errors that they have committed.
The facility was professional and accessible. And the detainees were able to participate in educational programs. I used to tell my clients there that they were lucky in a way – most ICE facilities provide no programs and were hours away from their communities and lawyers.
Although there have always been anti-ICE protests outside the facility, the protests picked up in strength and numbers last summer. And I also saw an uptick in federal court lawsuits naming Sheriff David Livingston as a respondent. At the end of the day, I just don’t think it was worth it anymore for the county, at least financially, to continue its contract with ICE.
The hundreds of ICE detainees left at the facility were promptly transferred to other ICE facilities. Dozens were flown to Tacoma, Washington, and Aurora, Colorado. The detainees were given little notice and most counsel were not notified at all. There was a lot of stress and pandemonium. Court dates were vacated, and jurisdictions were transferred. Several successful lawsuits were filed which forced ICE to bring back detainees to San Francisco’s jurisdiction.
Several of my West County clients who were transferred ended up in Aurora. I ended up flying out twice to Aurora because the first time I received last-minute news my hearing would not go forward because my client was quarantined due to a chicken pox outbreak. Since this outbreak, there have been more quarantines. Multiple clients told me about the lack of medical care and one client was released in crutches. Another was two weeks in the infirmary and had no access to the telephone for its duration.
It was also stressful to prepare cases over the telephone. Sometimes I wouldn’t get through, or my client was in a room full of people. It’s awkward talking about sensitive topics like past abuse or criminal history over the line, and frankly, this practice is re-traumatizing. I would usually end up arriving early to hopefully meet my client in person right before the hearing.
I understand that protests are important in stopping the inhumane ICE practice of immigration detention. I respect these protestors and if I weren’t fighting ICE everyday behind my desk or in the courtroom, I would be there with them. But the practical result of the county’s decision to end its contract with ICE is that many locally-based immigrants now cannot adequately prepare their cases because they can’t stand the conditions elsewhere and are far from their families and counsel.