Tensions High as Santa Ana Council Narrowly Nixes Keeping ICE Jail Contract

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Santa Ana City Councilman Jose Solorio.

A split Santa Ana City Council narrowly rejected an effort to revive the city’s jail contract with federal immigration authorities Tuesday.

The revival proposal was brought forward by Councilman Jose Solorio, who said losing the contract would harm immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as hurt city revenues and jail jobs funded by the contract.

His effort was loudly and sometimes dramatically opposed by pro-immigration activists, who interrupted the meeting with chants calling Solorio a “Latino Trump.”

At one point Solorio argued with activists, telling them they didn’t understand the “hurt” inflicted on detained immigrants and their families when ICE detains them hours away at a jail in the Mojave Desert.

Ultimately, the revival failed on a 3-3 vote, with one council member absent.

In response to past decisions by the council to phase out the contract, ICE recently announced plans to cancel the agreement to house its detainees in the city jail.

Among other effects, the cancellation means a loss of millions of dollars per year in revenue that pays for dozens of jail staff who oversee the federal detainees.

Santa Ana’s jail generally houses people held on federal and state charges, but not those detained by city police. Instead, people arrested by local police are held at the county Sheriff’s Department jails at no charge to the city.

The Santa Ana city jail. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

After the council voted Dec. 6 to reduce the maximum number of ICE detainees at the jail, two new council members – Solorio and Juan Villegas – took office following their wins in the November election.

Solorio proposed fully re-establishing the contract, saying Tuesday that allowing it to be canceled would mean families of detainees and their attorneys would have to drive hours away to an ICE jail in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto.

“Ensuring that detainees are taken far away from family and legal counsel will not help them,” Solorio said, citing an email he said he received from an immigration attorney he didn’t name.

“Folks are gonna be transferred instead to places like Adelanto” in San Bernardino County, Solorio said, noting the Adelanto facility is run by a private company. “If you think the conditions in our facility or other public facilities are bad, they’re much worse in private jails.”

And, he said, bringing back the contract would generate $70 million to $80 million in revenue to the city over a decade-long period, revenue he said the city desperately needs. The contract could generate twice that amount if nearly all of the jail’s beds were filled with ICE detainees.

But a crowd of pro-immigrant and LGBT activists in the audience remained adamantly opposed.

During public comments, they said reinstating the contract would turn the City Council’s back on the immigrants they promised to protect through the city’s sanctuary city ordinance, for the sake of financial profit.

“What kind of sanctuary city does business with immigration enforcement authorities?” asked Luis Gomez, an advocate for LGBT immigrants.

The activists said the contract’s phase-out has already led ICE to release immigration detainees they were holding at the Santa Ana jail.

And they accused Solorio, Villegas, and Mayor Miguel Pulido of trying to “pay back a political debt” to the police union for helping them get elected last year. Earlier in the meeting, Solorio responded to such allegations by noting every council member was endorsed by the police union at some point in the past.

Pro-immigration activists at Tuesday night’s meeting. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

When Solorio cited the contract’s revenue for the city, and the potential loss of “good paying jobs” at the jail, tensions quickly escalated.

Laura Kanter, an advocate with the LGBT Center OC, shouted from the audience that the money would be generated “on the backs of other people.” The jail has a unit specifically for transgender ICE detainees.

Solorio fired back. “Some of you unfortunately don’t know what real hurt is,” he said.

It takes “hours and hours” for immigration attorneys to drive the round trip to the ICE jail in Adelanto, Solorio said.

A couple dozen activists, many of whom were holding signs that said “Stop [Profiting] Off Of Immigration Detention,” then rose from their seats, loudly chanting “Latino Trump!” at Solorio over and over again.

With the activists not letting up their chants, Pulido called a break in the meeting so the activists could “settle down.” They kept chanting, accusing Solorio of being a “vendido” – Spanish for “sellout.”

After a few minutes, the meeting resumed and council members, without further discussion, cast their votes on reinstating the contract .

The vote deadlocked 3-to-3. Solorio, Villegas, and Pulido voted for it, while Sal Tinajero, David Benavides, and Michele Martinez opposed it. The seventh council member, Vicente Sarmiento, didn’t attend the meeting.

That means Solorio’s proposal didn’t move forward. He declined to comment about the vote after the meeting.

Hypothetically, the contract could be revived if Sarmiento supports it at a future meeting. But he has so far voted to phase out the contract.

The fate of 80-plus workers at the jail now hangs in the balance. It’s unclear whether city leaders will find another funding source to keep their jobs, or lay them off. A city-commissioned study into alternative uses for the jail hasn’t yet started, and is likely months away from completion.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.