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Private facility now holding immigration detainees in Bakersfield

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Undocumented immigrants are now being housed in a long-closed private correctional facility in Bakersfield.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started filling the Mesa Verde Detention Facility on Golden State Avenue, and, as of Friday, the site held 85 detainees.

ICE says this is its only facility in the San Joaquin Valley, and it's key to meeting some of the agency's goals.

"This facility will be in compliance with the most rigorous performance-based standards that we impose on our facilities," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.

She said the newly renovated facility will be good for the people held there.

"They'll have access to the best possible conditions, and we're very pleased about that," she said.

Kice said the location is also key to their ongoing detention reform plan, because it will keep detainees in the area. Until now, people picked up in the San Joaquin Valley were sent to ICE facilities in Northern California.

"That's problematic in terms of access to their families, and could also be problematic to their legal counsel, if they're represented," she said.

The spokeswoman said people housed at Mesa Verde will be "foreign nationals" waiting for the final outcome of their immigration proceedings. Kice said the "vast majority" of individuals waiting on cases are not detained, but places like Mesa Verde are needed for the others.

"We prioritize the use of our detention bed for individuals who are deemed to be public safety threats, and individuals who are thought to be flight risks," she said. "They may have fairly significant criminal convictions, but I'd like to emphasize that if they would have prior criminal convictions -- they have already fulfilled any sentence imposed in these cases."

Those immigrants would have served sentences in state prison.

State inmates were sent to Mesa Verde, until prison realignment happened. The correctional facility has been unused since 2009.

Kice said ICE now has an intergovernmental service agreement with the city of McFarland to run Mesa Verde, and the city has a contract with the GEO Group to handle day-to-day operations.

A company spokesman has said GEO put some $10 million into the renovations at the facility. The facility will have more than 100 full-time workers, according to Pablo E. Paez, vice president of corporate relations for the GEO Group.

The remodeled site has dorm-style rooms, ICE says, and detainees will have access to an on-site law library, medical clinic and religious services. It also has visitation rooms and recreation areas. The agency says the average cost to house a detainee at Mesa Verde will be $107 a day.

Kice could not tell Eyewitness News how many jobs the re-opening has created, and no one from GEO responded to our calls on Friday.

The ICE spokeswoman said detainees are waiting for their cases to go through the immigration court process, and typically more than 70 percent are released in less than 30 days.

And while the private company, GEO Group, will handle operations, Kice says ICE will have a regular presence at Mesa Verde.

"We'll have officers there who will be responsible for meeting on a regular basis with detainees to ensure these individuals are aware of the status of their cases, (and) will ensure that individuals are available when they are needed to attend any court proceedings," she said.

Kice said ICE has worked for about two years to get a facility like this. "We're very pleased that we're finally able to bring this to fruition," she said.

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