Yolo County Appears Ready to End Federal Contract for Immigrant Teen Detention Center
By Elliot Wailoo, The Sacramento Bee
Yolo County supervisors appear ready to terminate a decade-old contract with federal immigration authorities to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers in a high-security detention center in Woodland.
This fall, the five-member Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether to extend the county’s contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which can detain up to two dozen unaccompanied migrant teenagers in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility.
The Yolo facility is one of two high-security centers for immigrant teenagers nationwide and houses unaccompanied minors who “pose a danger to self or others” or could be charged with a criminal offense, federal immigration guidelines state. The second is in central Virginia, while a third high-security facility in northern Virginia ended its contract with the federal government last year.
Since the contract began, the Yolo detention center has housed about 800 teenagers who entered the United States without a parent, most of them from Central America and Mexico.
Now the relationship appears ready to end, in part because Yolo County supervisors and other officials have questioned whether it’s appropriate to collaborate with what some call an “erratic” federal government to lock up migrant children — and argue the center, which is nearly empty, could be put to better use.
A minimum of three supervisors must vote “yes” in order to extend the contract with ORR. One board member, Oscar Villegas, is expected to recuse himself because he works with the Board of State and Community Corrections. That leaves four supervisors available to vote.
In interviews, supervisors Don Saylor and Gary Sandy criticized the contract, and indicated they would likely vote against the extension, effectively killing a relationship Yolo County has maintained with the federal government since 2008.
“I’m leaning strongly against renewing the contract,” Sandy said.
As the Trump administration has faced criticism for its treatment of asylum-seeking migrants in detention camps, the Yolo facility has itself faced scrutiny for its treatment of teenagers under its care, as well as other staffing and finance issues.
A recent report by disability-rights activists claimed guards at the Yolo facility were using pepper spray on wards and failing to provide adequate special education services. A grand jury report last year criticized the facility for failing to report assaults on staff members and an escape attempt, and a state audit said Yolo County had undercharged the federal government for all the services it provided.
County officials also have been critical of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, saying in 2017 that it sent teenagers to the facility without proof they were members of the MS-13 gang — an affiliation that requires placement at a high-security facility. All seven were eventually moved to less restrictive facilities.
The ORR also came under criticism for sending an abused Honduran teenager to the high-security Yolo facility for a year before he was granted asylum in 2017.
Approximately 10,000 unaccompanied youths are housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in houses, shelters and detention centers across the U.S., according to the agency. California has capacity for 450 of them, including as many as 24 in the Yolo facility.
“At what point do you become complicit with the federal government’s treatment of immigrants by housing young people in detention centers?” Saylor said.
Saylor and Sandy said they became disillusioned about continuing to work with ORR when the agency announced in May that it would stop funding educational and recreational programs, which the facility is required by law to provide.
Although the decision was reversed within a month, Saylor called the initial decision “chilling.” Sandy agreed.
“That goes to the heart of what I see as the erratic, chaotic way that ORR is administered by the federal government,” Sandy said, calling it “the epitome of fiscal mismanagement.”
If the contract is not approved this fall, it will expire in January, Saylor said. Between now and then, case managers at the center would stop accepting new transfers, work to reunify youths in the center with sponsors, and transfer remaining youths to other facilities across the country.
FACILITY NEARLY EMPTY
Critics, including facility administrators and county officials, say that the current center is operating far under capacity and could better service the county in another way.
In 2019, the facility received about $3.2 million from the county to cover care for local youths, and a $6.7 million grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement for unaccompanied minors, but it remains nearly empty. The 90-bed center housed fewer than 17 youths per day in the first quarter of this year — a number that includes migrant teens and local juvenile offenders.
“It’s a $10 million program,” Saylor said. “Today, there are 12 kids there.”
Facility administrators attribute the slump in numbers of Yolo youths detained in the center to shifting attitudes toward juvenile delinquency nationwide. In the first quarter of 2019, an average of 4.5 local youths lived in a 30-bed pod.
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