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California Assemblyman Rob Bonta Discusses Private Detention Centers And ICE


The state of California is once again at odds with the federal government, this time over new contracts between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private prison companies. These federal contracts would double immigration detention space in California, and they were signed just days before a new state law would have banned new contracts with private prison companies. Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta is the author of the law, and he told me that the federal government inappropriately rushed the contracts to get around this new law.

ROB BONTA: It should've complied with federal law. And if it did, it would've been longer and more competitive and move past January 1, 2020. But they deliberately manipulated the process - gamed it and rigged it - so that they could get these new contracts in place before January 1, 2020.

CHANG: OK. I'm going to put aside your objections about the specific bidding process. Can you lay out what this new law was set to achieve?

BONTA: For sure. In short, this bill, AB-32, was designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of Californians who indisputably, based on record after record and documented evidence, were being hurt, harmed, abused and neglected inside these for-profit private facilities.

CHANG: That said, as the federal government continues to detain immigrants and says it needs more beds for these detainees, ICE says that they would have to just send these immigrants to other states because of this law. So what does your law ultimately accomplish except simply diverting immigrant detainees elsewhere? I mean, how are you really addressing the problems you're citing right now?

BONTA: It accomplishes a huge victory for Californians who will no longer be subject to the abuse, hurt, harm and neglect inside these facilities. That is good. That is positive. What ICE does next is up to ICE. They need to decide whether they want to have their own facilities and not contract with these abusive for-profit private companies that are trying to pad their profits and make as much money as they can off of what they specifically call people - commodities.

CHANG: Another argument that ICE is raising is that, look, it's simply trying to enforce existing federal law. People are entering this country illegally, so something must be done. So another way to look at this is that California lawmakers are the ones trying to obstruct federal law here by making it harder for ICE to do its job. What would you say to that argument?

BONTA: That it's totally inappropriate here. There is no doubt that ICE still has authority over enforcing federal law. They can determine who may enter, who may be lawfully present, who can be detained, who could be deported. All we're saying with AB-32 is we do not want people of California to be subject to the abuses inside for-profit private detention centers. If ICE wants to build its own detention center and run it with accountability and oversight and transparency and following rules and regulations for health, safety and welfare, they may.

CHANG: Ultimately, these contracts have been signed. They've been executed. What recourse does California have against this move by ICE? Is there a recourse?

BONTA: Yes - could be an executive order by the governor. It could be a lawsuit seeking an injunction from the attorney general. It could be our congressional delegation, led by Senator Kamala Harris, who wrote a letter asking why federal procurement law has been violated, a lot of them doing oversight hearings and challenging these contracts for violation of federal law. It could be the legislature - it could be me coming back in January with another bill that increases the authority of the state of California to protect its people against the abuses of these for-profit private detention centers, including stepping in and intervening and ending their abusive practices if it's documented that that's what's happening.

CHANG: Rob Bonta is a Democrat serving in the California State Assembly. Thank you very much, and Merry Christmas.

BONTA: Thank you for having me. Also, Merry Christmas to you, too. Happy holidays.

CHANG: And we did reach out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A spokesperson said that ICE complied with federal law throughout the contract process and that state laws aimed at obstructing federal enforcement are inappropriate and harmful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.