Firm sues California over ban on private prisons

Migrant Centers

A patch is shown on the uniform of a guard with the GEO Group, Inc., during a media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. The GEO Group is the private company that operates the center for the U.S. Government. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A private prison firm that just won multibillion-dollar contracts to run federal immigration detention centers in California sued the state on Monday, claiming that a new ban on for-profit lockups in California is unconstitutional.

The GEO Group, Inc., argued in the federal suit that Assembly Bill 32, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, would unlawfully undermine enforcement criminal and immigration law. It asks a federal court to permanently bar the law from taking effect.

“There is a longstanding and clear-cut constitutional principle that individual states cannot regulate the actions and activities of the federal government,” the Boca Raton, Florida company said in a statement.

AB 32 bars renewal of contracts with operators of private prisons. It also bars the use of private immigration detention facilities in the state.

The suit said the law, due to take effect Jan. 1, would affect at least 10 privately-run facilities with nearly 11,000 beds. Seven are managed by GEO.

The lawsuit names Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Messages seeking comment from Becerra’s office were not immediately returned Monday night.

California, with its large immigrant population, is one of several states at the forefront of efforts to fight Trump administration policies over the federal detention of people who are in the country illegally. Supporters of AB 32 hoped the law would force U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to look elsewhere when citing detention facilities after current contracts expire.

ICE currently has four detention centers in California, all of them operated by private companies. The federal government recently announced $6.8 billion worth of long-term contracts for the facilities in San Diego, Calexico, Adelanto and Bakersfield. The sites house about 4,000 detainees, with capacity to expand in the future.

The GEO Group Inc. won two five-year extensions — one to operate the detention center in Adelanto, with capacity for 2,690 beds, and another to run the facility in Bakersfield, with capacity for 1,800 beds. Those two contracts are worth more than $3.7 billion.

Under the new contracts, detention space in California is set to double to nearly 7,200 beds.

ICE said the contracts were not subject to the new state law, deflecting criticism that the timing was meant to circumvent it.

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