Hundreds protest, counter-protest expansion of immigration detention at McFarland Planning Commission meeting

January 27, 2020 / and

Hundreds of people gathered outside the McFarland Veteran Memorial Hall last Tuesday to attend the City Planning Commission meeting, where people were set to discuss the possibility of expanding city permits to its immigrant detention capabilities.

The GEO Group, Inc., the private prison company that operates Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, is working with city officials to use the Golden State Modified Correctional Facility, an old state prison, for immigrant detention; however, many McFarland residents oppose the plan.

“As residents of the community of McFarland, we say ‘No, we are not in favor of GEO opening a facility with ICE,'” Miralda Gonzalez, a McFarland resident of 23 years, said to the board as people cheered her one from outside.

With only about 50 people allowed in the meeting, hundreds of people were left outside — both immigrant rights advocates demanding the board not allow the expansion and GEO employees advocating to save their jobs.

GEO employees were outside holding signs that read, “Save our jobs,” while immigrant rights advocates chanted phrases like, “Shut down GEO.”

People wait outside the McFarland Veteran’s Memorial Hall to get into the Planning Commission meeting Tuesday.

The meeting was held to hear public comment from all parties involved, including GEO employees and community members; however, the room was mainly filled with GEO employees.

During the public comment period, a translator was not provided. It wasn’t until community members advocated for a one when the board found a translator — GEO’s personal translator.

David Donahue, senior vice president of GEO, said having a processing facility could benefit the city of McFarland with more jobs and money for the city.

“The number of jobs will increase from 154 to 173 positions,” Donahue said. “GEO will pay the city one dollar per bed, per day for each of the two, 700-bed re-purpose facilities.”

However, it seemed McFarland residents could care less about the monetary impact of the facilities. Donahue’s comments were met with booing from the crowd standing outside.

After hearing from nearly a dozen speakers in favor of GEO expanding immigrant detention capabilities, the planning commission board finally heard from those who oppose the idea.

Emely Velez, a staffer with the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the plan and said it violates Assembly Bill 32, which intends to phase out the use of for profit prisons and detention centers in California beginning January of 2020.

“GEO’s attempt to convert two of its facilities into immigration prisons goes against the intent of assembly bill 32 which generally prohibits the operation of private prisons including immigration detention facilities,” Velez said.

She continued:  “McFarland should not issue modify permits to GEO in light of the fact that it has been criticized and investigated for poor conditions, including substandard medical care and documented safety violations.”

Other immigrant rights advocates and McFarland residents explained to the board why they also oppose allowing GEO to take over the facilities.

“I am here to stop the expansion of two detention centers and reinvest in our community instead of mass incarceration,” said Tania Bernal, a McFarland resident.

Some cited racial profiling as a negative consequence, considering McFarland is made up of a majority of Latino or Hispanic residents.

Other’s said it would increase the separation of families, and it would cause the community to live in constant fear.

The Planning Commission Board is set to hold another public comment meeting in six months before it makes a decision on the permits, according to 23 ABC News.

Lizette Chavez

Lizette Chavez is a youth reporter for South Kern Sol. She is a student at Bakersfield College and has been selected to partake in South Kern Sol's CA 2020: Democracy Media Fellowship.

Marco Rodriguez

Marco Rodriguez is a youth reporter from Delano for South Kern Sol.