Immigration Detention Contractor Sues California over Private Prison Ban
By Shari Rendall | FAIR Take | January 2020
On December 30, the GEO Group (GEO) filed suit against the State of California, claiming that the Golden State’s ban on private prisons and immigration detention centers is unconstitutional. GEO owns and operates detention facilities across the United States under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the United States Marshals Service (USMS), and several other federal agencies. While the immediate effect may be to put the brakes on California, the lawsuit also carries wider implications throughout the country, as other states have either passed similar legislation or are considering it.
The California Legislature passed the private-prison and immigration detention center ban, Assembly Bill (AB) 32, on September 11, 2019. As he signed the bill into law on October 11, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) he proclaimed’ “[t]hese for-profit prisons do not reflect our values[.]” Under AB 32, no new private detention contracts can be signed, or old ones renewed, after January 1, 2020, and all private facilities have to completely wind up their operations by 2028.
Ten private facilities in California house roughly 11,000 federal detainees, “the vast majority of federal detention capacity in the state.” GEO operates seven of the ten.
In its complaint, filed in federal court in San Diego, GEO argues that AB 32:
- is unconstitutional because it is a state attempting to regulate the federal government;
- is unconstitutional because it is a state discriminating against the federal government;
- is unconstitutional because it is preempted by federal law; and
- does not apply to GEO’s current facilities in California, as the federal contracts covering them were signed before the law took effect on January 1, 2020.
The suit calls AB 32 a “transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within California’s borders” and “a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law.”
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), the bill’s sponsor, derided GEO’s lawsuit, calling it “what you’d expect from a collapsing industry in its final death throes—a desperate attempt to buy another year of survival to pad its corporate profits, despite a nation’s rejection of profiteering on the backs of humans and treating people as commodities.”
But as former Acting ICE Director Tom Homan noted when the bill passed, “the Legislature is effectively making the absurd claim that it has the power to ignore federal law. If federal immigration laws are optional, then why not make all federal laws optional? This is a frightening concept that would make all laws meaningless and lead to chaos and anarchy.”