A coalition of 35 organizations serving the Inland Empire’s immigrant community is calling on the Adelanto City Council to fire its city manager for his “involvement and collusion with” the for-profit prison company that owns and operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California's Mojave desert, one of the county's largest immigration detention centers.
The Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice is also urging the city to comply with a state law that regulates the process by which cities issue building permits to private corporations when it considers whether to allow the GEO Group to expand the detention facility.
“The City of Adelanto has a responsibility and opportunity to hold its employees and GEO Group accountable for their misdeeds,” coalition Executive Director Javier Hernandez and community organizer Lizbeth Abeln wrote in a letter to the council on Monday. “We urge immediate action to mitigate the damage that City Manager Jessie Flores and GEO Group Inc. have inflicted on the city’s image.”
The coalition requested the council respond to these concerns and others by Friday.
The coalition's demands come three days after The Desert Sun reported on behind-the-scenes communication between the GEO Group and Adelanto city officials that shed light on how the company has remained profitable, even as California’s Democrat-dominated legislature has sought to shut down private prisons and detention centers.
The correspondence, obtained through the California Public Records Act, revealed that company CEO George Zoley last year urged city officials to pull out of their detention center agreements with GEO and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also promised to continue paying the city $50,000 annually for facilitating the contract with federal immigration officials, even though it would no longer be in effect.
Flores eventually ended the contracts without a public vote by the City Council nor input from residents. He later told The Desert Sun he made the decision “due to the rising costs of all the continuing records requests” and related legal fees.
Adelanto Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans said the reporting confirms what she had suspected: That GEO had initiated the conversation regarding the ending of the contract and that Flores was “just kind of falling in line.” She said she supports the coalition in calling for Flores to be fired.
“I think he has proven through this and other issues that we can’t trust what he’s saying to us to be completely factual,” Evans said. “I feel like he gives us bits and pieces, so he’s not lying per se, but he’s definitely omitting a lot of the facts when he’s giving us information.
“If we can’t trust our staff, then we can’t do our job sufficiently,” she said, “so I have to agree with their call for termination.”
To move forward, Evans said she and two other council members would need to vote in favor of placing discussion of Flores' termination on a closed session agenda and then vote on the matter in closed session.
Adelanto Mayor Gabriel Reyes, Mayor Pro Tem Gerardo Hernandez and council members Ed Camargo and Joy Jeanette did not respond to requests for comment.
'Litigation is a tool' to ensure law compliance
The coalition is also raising concerns about whether a recent Adelanto Planning Commission hearing regarding GEO's proposal to expand the detention center met the provisions of SB 29. The commission met Jan. 22 to consider GEO's application to convert its state prison in Adelanto, Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility, into a 750-bed annex for the detention center facility.
The state law requires a city solicit and hear comment at two public hearings, and provide 180 days notice, before issuing a permit for a private corporation to detain immigrants.
The coalition is now asking the council to void the hearing, because the commission didn't provide the adequate documents related to the meeting, including the existing or proposed conditional-use permit or an environmental impact report.
At the standing-room-only hearing, GEO officials and employees filled most of the seats in the chamber. The city didn't provide adequate overflow seating for speakers outside the chamber, the group said, so some people were unable to enter the room and didn’t get the opportunity to voice their opinion. Additionally, the group said, GEO allowed one GEO executive to speak for seven minutes, while other speakers were held to three-minute comments.
"We're looking at all possible ways of ensuring that the expansion is not approved and that laws are being followed," said Hernandez of the coalition. "Litigation is a tool if we find that the law is not followed properly."
Grisel Ruiz, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center which co-sponsored SB 29, said it was “extremely alarming” to hear that those who attended the first hearing weren’t provided with proper documents, and others weren't able to participate at all.
“The purpose of that provision of SB 29 is to have public notice and ensure that the public is at the table when these pretty large decisions are going to be taken, that are going to be impacting local communities,” Ruiz said. “How can the public have a meaningful vote if they’re voting blind and if their voices aren’t heard?”
ACLU concerned about meeting in McFarland
The ACLU of Southern California, meanwhile, is raising similar concerns about the McFarland Planning Commission's Jan. 21 hearing on GEO's proposal to convert two state prisons in the Central Valley city into annexes for the company's Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the McFarland Planning Commission, ACLU staff attorney Jordan Wells said the city did not provide the public with GEO's existing permits or permit applications in advance of the meeting.
"GEO representatives appear to have been the lone members of the public with access to the applications before last week's hearing and thus were the only attendees in a position to offer fully informed input," he wrote. "Until the City provides adequate notices to the public of the substance of GEO's permit applications, it cannot begin to complete the two hearings of the 180-day notice period required" under the law.
Additionally, he said, the commission did not plan to provide interpretation services for the hearing, even though 82% of adults in the city of about 14,500 speak Spanish at home, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.
McFarland City Attorney Tom Schroeter did not respond to a request for comment.
The expansion of both the Adelanto and Mesa Verde detention facilities are part of controversial 15-year contracts that ICE and GEO inked in late December, less than two weeks before a state law took effect, phasing out private prisons and detention centers.
AB 32 generally prohibits the private operation of immigration detention facilities as of 2020. The legislation makes some exceptions: It allows for the operation of a private detention facility that has a valid contract with a government entity, as long as the contract was in effect before Jan. 1. The laws says operation can continue for the duration of the contract but prohibits extensions.
Democratic members of California's congressional delegation, other state leaders and immigration advocates have slammed ICE, alleging the federal agency dodged AB 32 by rushing to lock in last-minute contracts worth several billion dollars for GEO and other operators of the state's existing detention centers.
Two days before the law took effect, GEO sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Xaxier Becerra, arguing that AB 32 unlawfully undermines the federal government's ability to detain people in California as part of federal immigration proceedings. The suit asks a federal court to declare the law unconstitutional and bar it from taking effect.
The Trump administration also sued California last week, saying the ban on for-profit prison contracts is unconstitutional and interferes with the federal prison and immigration detention systems.
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