Meet the Latino activists who killed their city's prison expansion deal


A group of Latino elected officials in Santa Ana, California, was publicly shamed by community members Tuesday for considering a proposal from federal immigration authorities to house more undocumented immigrants in the city jail.

After two hours of testimonies from community members opposing the new contract, even the city manager who brought the contract to a vote acknowledged he didn’t want to be in the business of running jails. But “unfortunately we have a $27 million debt that we need to pay,” said city manager David Cavazos.

“It’s extremely shameful that the city is in a sense looking to cover its budget holes on the backs of undocumented people,” said Hairo Cortes, a program coordinator for the immigrant rights group Orange County Immigrant Youth United and the first speaker to approach the podium.

Like many other cities across the country, Santa Ana has found itself in the business of running jails because it was strapped for cash. Signing contracts with the federal government to house immigrants has become a common way to close budget shortfalls. But what’s unique about Santa Ana is that it’s a relatively large city with a significant Mexican-American population that has challenged members of its own community who have become city leaders.

“We’re related, folks. Do not do this to your own people.” — Santa Ana City resident Marcela Sava

The Southern California city, located 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, built an estimated $107 million jail during a crime wave in the 1990s. But now that there’s less crime, city officials are housing federal immigration detainees to fill the empty beds.

The city council was considering an updated contract that included a guarantee of at least 128 beds for individuals being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.) The contract would also allow ICE to potentially house up to 300 detainees, up from 200 in the current agreement. It would have paid a “bed day rate” of $105.00 per bed.

“It’s disappointing we’re even having this conversation. We’re talking about an all-Latino, all Democratic city council basically taking a position that would make Donald Trump proud,” Cortes told the city councilmembers.

A Spanish expedition leader christened Santa Ana, in honor of Saint Anne, in 1769. Today about 78% Santa Ana residents are Latino. The city government still carries some of its Spanish roots—a portion of the city council meeting honoring a community member on Tuesday was run entirely in Spanish.

The council meeting was held a week after 31 women filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging officers at the Santa Ana City Jail have conducted strip searches that are illegal. Activists have also called for the facility to close because it houses LGBT detainees who are more likely to face physical and sexual abuse in detention.

“We already know the abuses that are happening inside. Why would we expand that some more?” said Jorge Gutierrez, director of Familia: TQLM, an LGBT immigrant rights group that encouraged locals to attend the city council meeting.

City Manager David Cavazos said ICE was also “asking to operate a transgender pilot program at the Santa Ana City Jail.

“I don’t believe that we should be in the jail business, I’ve said that since day one. We got into this business for a lot of reasons. Unfortunately we have a $27 million debt that we need to pay,” Cavazos told the council members on Tuesday.

Cavazos said if the council approved the new ICE contract the city “would be in a better position long term to pay our debt,” which he said was about $3 million a year until 2024. The new increase in beds would generate an estimated $2.2 million annually, according to city documents reviewed by Fusion.

“At the end of the day I know that this contract is not desirable by both the majority of people that live here and the council but we’re not quite there yet in terms of looking at [other] options,” said Cavazos.

Members of the community urged the city council to consider the consequences of opening an immigration detention center in a town with so many immigrants.

“Those of you who have lived here all your life recognize that this is an immigrant city,” said Alfredo Amezcua, another speaker who approached the podium.

One woman approached the microphone to highlight the mayor and council members’ Spanish surnames, reading the last names aloud one by one.

“We’re related, folks. Do not do this to your own people,” said Marcela Sava, who said this was the first time she was visiting the city council.

“I really hate that you even call it housing for federal inmates. It’s not housing. Don’t lie to yourself,” Sava said. “This is not housing and these are not beds. That’s 128 people,” Sava added.

Councilmember David Benavides said signing the ICE contract was more complex for him and not just a black and white issue. “The federal government could help us get out of debt and then out of this contract,” Benavides said to boos from the audience.

Benavides went on to say he wanted to continue conversations because there may be opportunities for Santa Ana to become a leader in the confinement community.

“The city of Santa Ana could be noticed for providing a dignified respectful way for people to be housed,” said Benavides over moans and boos from the audience.

By the end of the night Benavides, his five fellow council members, and the mayor unanimously voted against the contract that was set to start February 2nd. All of them agreed there had to be more discussions with community members. They said eventually they would like to cease contracts with ICE altogether.

“It’s over. You guys won. Congratulations” mayor Manuel Pulido told the audience.

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