The Future of ICE Detention Centers in California

Barbwire surrounding ICE detention center in California

California has been a leader in immigration reform over the past few years, and the enactment of the Alternate Plea Act in 2022 is clear evidence. This innovative law now ensures legal protection for undocumented immigrants and citizens facing specific drug-related offenses. Despite this, a surprising amount of individuals remain uninformed regarding ice detention centers and how they function within California borders. In this article, I will cover ICE detention centers in California, how recent laws are impacting them, and look at the potential outcomes of these developments on citizens and non-citizens living within the state. Finally, I will share some of the legal issues that numerous advocacy organizations have encountered across America to give you a holistic perspective.

Overview of ICE Detention Centers in California

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) is the second largest law enforcement agency in the nation. Their objective is to find and detain immigrants who are recent arrivals, fugitives, or convicted criminals. In California, seven ICE Detention Centers hold people while they await hearings regarding possible deportation from the United States. On a national scale, ICE detention centers are tasked with housing and processing unlawful immigrants and repatriating those without legal permission to remain in the U.S.

ICE follows a strict set of rules for detention center management and operations; this includes regularly performing inspections on the facility to ensure satisfactory sanitary, living, and safety conditions. In addition, ICE detention centers strive to provide resources to detainees, such as legal counsel or access to cultural resources from their home countries. Even though ICE detention centers in California serve a valuable role in the enforcement of immigration laws, they also seek to treat everyone humanely and fairly, even within a system that can be harsh at times.

California Drug Laws & The Alternate Plea Act

Woman looking through security fencing

For decades California’s drug laws have been the subject of racially charged disparities. However, in 2014, Proposition 47 passed, which decriminalized the use of marijuana in small amounts. While California citizens were better off with more lenient drug laws, immigrants faced a much more precarious situation. Since 2004, ICE has focused on deporting all removable aliens with mandatory detention, mass fingerprinting, and stronger relationships with local law enforcement. Increasingly strict immigration laws paired with lax drug policies have jeopardized the lives of immigrants when dealing with ICE raids, targeted harassment, and incarceration.

To provide a solution that protects everyone and their rights to due process, the Alternate Plea Act became law in September 2022. This act gives individuals caught in possession of drugs the right to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors for infractions or misdemeanors that would typically result in mandatory incarceration at an ICE detention center in California. This newfound opportunity can be life-changing for struggling immigrants seeking help while simultaneously releasing ICE from overcrowding and providing better care for those that remain in detention centers. The goal is to lessen the burden that economic disadvantage and lack of adequate legal representation present due to outdated or unfair enforcement of drug laws. 

Potential Benefits for ICE Detention Centers Due to New Laws

ICE Detention Centers in California are slowly and steadily approaching a groundbreaking new era. With the Alternate Plea Act in effect, taxpayers and local governments can reduce spending and generate savings by decreasing or eliminating the length of ICE detainment in some cases. According to a recent article, ICE spends $144 per day to house one person in its facilities. With over 1,800 detainees in California’s ICE detention centers, our state government shells out a quarter of a million dollars daily. The results could lead to a significant reallocation of tax dollars for more pressing issues Californians currently face.

In addition, ICE detention centers could promote the safer and more humane treatment of detainees when stricter regulations on bureaucracy, facility conditions, safety protocols, and sanitation become the norm. With more breathing room in the budget, ICE officers can receive more intensive training to ensure an overall increase in the health and welfare of all persons within the facility, especially during pandemic-like conditions. Rather than housing detected immigrants in overcrowded conditions, ICE centers can offer support for public health issues, such as medical screenings and mental health services.

With fewer detainees, there is an opportunity to prioritize individuals who pose a greater risk to public safety. With this new legislation, our judicial system and government agencies can compassionately address immigration issues and account for the rights of those detained while prioritizing public safety. 

Implications for Citizens and Non-Citizens Living in California

The Alternate Plea Act is an impactful piece of legislation, as it helps those facing minor drug-related charges to avoid losing access to critical necessities. For many people, a drug conviction can lead to the loss of housing, parental rights, and the inability to obtain professional licenses. But, with the ability to plead to a lesser charge and enter a public nuisance plea, citizens are no longer forced to face life-altering consequences due to minor infractions or misdemeanors. While alternate plea agreements cannot address all civil limitations resulting from convictions, they provide individuals with much-needed relief and an opportunity to reclaim their lives instead of dealing with long-term struggles due to criminal convictions.

For immigrants, this new legislation provides a way to avoid ICE detention centers here in California and remain on the pathway to permanent citizenship. Before the enactment of the Alternate Plea Act, drug convictions could have dire consequences such as mandatory deportation, separation from family members, revoked Green Cards, and the inability to achieve legal status. Now with the ability to enter a public nuisance plea, immigrants can remain in the country with their families and pursue their dreams of becoming U.S. citizens without suffering irreparable harm or permanent loss.

Legal Challenges Against ICE Detention Centers in California

Border patrol agents confronting illegal aliens 

America has always been a nation of immigrants, and civil rights issues have continuously plagued our society. Therefore, many advocacy groups have shouldered the burden of fighting for justice in the legal system through relentless dedication to their cause. For example, activists continue to take on ICE detention centers in California to protect human rights and combat all forms, even though the process is complex and involves navigating the judicial system at the state and federal levels.

Since 2020, organizations such as the ACLU, the Immigration Advocacy Network, Human Rights Watch, and others have filed lawsuits to champion immigrants’ rights and challenge unjust practices in ICE detention centers. During the pandemic, organizations made substantial progress, and detainee populations dropped due to COVID-19. However, since then, the Supreme Court’s opinion on Pereida v. Wilkinson, 141 S. Ct. 754, overruled the precedence set by the Ninth Circuit Court, and plea agreements were no longer an option in drug cases. This ruling prompted the creation of the Alternate Plea Act, which now returns power to judges and prosecutors to implement appropriate legal actions on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately, the Alternate Plea Act represents a significant step forward in the fight for justice and the protection of human rights inside ICE detention centers in California. This legislation proves collective action and advocacy can lead to meaningful change that helps protect vulnerable populations from unjust practices while prioritizing public safety. If you or a family member needs legal representation here in California, I have the experience you need. As a former prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, I possess a unique skill set that will help you navigate immigration issues expeditiously. Call me at (858) 922-7098 today for a consultation.

About Michael MacNeil

Michael C. MacNeil is a San Diego Family Law and Criminal Defense attorney. With a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law, MacNeil has a solid understanding of our justice system. As a member of the State Bar of California, MacNeal can practice before all courts in the state. MacNeil believes that the law should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. With over 20 years of experience, Michael C. MacNeil is passionate about the law and will work tirelessly to get the best possible outcome for you. Call Mr. MacNeil at 858-922-7098.