Los Angeles, United States – On February 4, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that temporarily bans privately run detention facilities contracted by the United States government.
At the heart of the ban is a proposed shelter for migrant and unaccompanied children to be privately managed under the jurisdiction of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It’s the latest tug-of-war between policymakers from the state of California and the administration of US President Donald Trump in an ever-expanding battle over a growing list of policies.
This newest clash may set up yet another legal battle between the federal government and one of the nation’s most populous and powerful states. Government data shows that in 2019, California produced more than $3 trillion worth of goods and services, making its economy far larger than those of the vast majority of the world’s countries.
The building at the centre of this state-versus-federal battle is a former assisted living facility in Arleta, a neighbourhood in the northern part of Los Angeles with a high concentration of Latinos. It is one of two proposed California centres meant to house migrant children. The recently passed ordinance temporarily halts any new construction or opening of such facilities. Over the next two to three months, California’s city council is expected to consider a permanent ban.
“The city of Los Angeles has great oversight over land use policy,” said Council President Nury Martinez, whose district includes the Arleta site. “We feel like we have really good legal standing to do this.”
LA Councilmember Herb Wesson first introduced a motion expressing no support for private immigration facilities in June 2019, hoping to send a message to federal agencies. But that message fell on deaf ears because a month later, the ORR awarded an Arizona-based youth services agency a grant to construct the facility. That organisation is called VisionQuest.
“I’m really kind of flabbergasted that individuals would try to go around [the ban]. So we’re a little shocked by that,” Wesson said.
VisionQuest’s troubled history
Most of VisionQuest’s children come to the facilities it runs from foster care and juvenile justice systems. According to The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), VisionQuest’s alleged violent handling of children spans the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and beyond.
According to CIR, 15 young people died in VisionQuest centres in its first two decades. New Mexico revoked the company’s licence in 1984 because it found some children were abused while at the state’s centres. In 1994, the US Department of Justice documented several cases of physical and mental abuse by VisionQuest staff “over many years and at different facilities”. In 1996, an 18-year-old was thrown from a VisionQuest truck in Utah. And in 2017, the company closed a facility in Pennsylvania after more allegations of child maltreatment.
According to CIR, a 2018 audit showed the company’s debt exceeded its assets by $8.5m. Entering the migrant child shelter business was part of its get-out-of-debt plan. With the latest federal grants, VisionQuest’s annual revenue increased by $28.5m, a 30 percent boost for a company that was losing $700,000 a year for the past two years. Opening detention centres is one way to maintain that boost. Yet, in many of its target locations, VisionQuest reportedly did not secure the necessary permits and leases before being awarded the funds.
Al Jazeera contacted VisionQuest, but as of the time of publication, it had not responded to that request for comment.
Los Angeles is not alone in putting a halt to VisionQuest’s efforts to license shelters for unaccompanied minors. In November 2019, the zoning commission for the city of San Antonio also blocked the company’s bid to open a detention facility for migrant children there. Albuquerque and Philadelphia are other locations where VisionQuest is being met with official resistance.
Mayra Todd is a Guatemalan immigrant who has been in the US for 33 years and lives near the proposed detention site in Arleta. She has made her presence known at city council meetings and at protest rallies in front of the building. “We’re going to keep fighting no matter what,” she told city council members.
For Todd, the fight is personal. Her son has been repeatedly threatened in Guatemala for his work as a collections agent, so he, his wife, and two children crossed into the US through its southern border last year without documentation, which is against US law. Their coyotes turned them over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In Texas, Todd’s son’s nine-year-old went with him to one detention centre, while his six-year-old went his wife to another facility. They were separated for 60 days while Todd petitioned for them.
Reunited in California with her son and his family, at least for now, Todd said through tears, “I came here with a dream when I left my family behind and couldn’t see them any more. We need to work together and show love for all kids.”
Federal government fights back
California passed a state ban on privately run immigration detention centres and prisons in 2019, but the federal government appears to be pushing forward with creating them. A month after California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 32 into law, ICE posted a request for bids from private companies for four new adult detention centres in his state. The federal contracts with three different companies totalled nearly $6.5bn and began less than two weeks before the ban went into effect on January 1st.
In a written statement to Al Jazeera, ICE spokesperson Lori Haley framed the new contracts as a benefit to the detained immigrants because they limit the need to transfer detainees to other states, along with keeping them near their families and legal representatives. She added, “State laws aimed at obstructing federal law enforcement are inappropriate and harmful,” saying it made an effort to remove “dangerous criminal aliens” more difficult.
HHS had no comment on VisionQuest’s scandal-plagued history managing facilities for minors. But in an email to Al Jazeera, HHS spokesperson Patrick Fisher, who is authorised to speak on behalf of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said there is no new information on the status of the proposed LA-area shelters. He adds that it’s up to VisionQuest to secure the needed infrastructure and licensing.
“Our top priority at ORR is to unify children with their parents, family members or other suitable sponsors as swiftly and safely as possible,” Fisher said. “ORR is a child welfare agency, not a law enforcement agency.”
Call them by any name, Council President Nury Martinez says, but housing parentless children in centres keeps them “in prisons”. And the LA City Council is preparing for a legal battle if needed.
“Sometimes, you have to fight fights that deserve to have a fight,” said councilmember Wesson. “And this is one. This is not who we are. I do believe that in a lot of ways, this is the president trying to gin up his base. I think that California is a foil for him. So between his federal government and our local government, I don’t see any peace on this issue.”