LA City Council takes first step to ban private immigrant facilities

( MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images )

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously backed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily ban private companies from establishing or operating immigrant detention centers or similar facilities within the city.

City Council President Nury Martinez, who championed the proposal, criticized the federal government and detention center operators, saying the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents when they cross the border has "scarred them for life."

She said the proposed ban -- which will need to be drafted by city attorneys and brought back for final council approval -- is also intended to apply to so-called "shelters" for unaccompanied immigrant minors, like one proposed by the company VisionQuest in Arleta, a predominantly Latino community.

"Our immigrant children have already been through hell," Martinez said. "Companies like VisionQuest are making their lives a living hell in their facilities, and I am fundamentally opposed to any idea of any company making any money off of the misery and pain of children. It is morally wrong on so many levels, and we cannot allow this in our city."

A VisionQuest representative disputed those claims in a statement to City News Service, saying the company "does not operate detention centers, nor do we have contracts to operate them."

"VisionQuest is looking to establish a migrant shelter to provide clothing, food, schooling, medical care and housing for unaccompanied minors," company spokesman Jeff Bender said. "Our goal is to reunite them with family members or a foster family within 90 days of arriving at the shelter to get to a point of a stable living environment. Once again, we are not associated with detention centers. Congress approved funding to provide these services for migrant shelters, and we are looking to do just that."

VisionQuest obtained $25 million in contracts from the federal government last year to operate immigrant facilities in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Martinez said a proposal to permanently ban immigrant detention centers is also being developed for council consideration. The proposed temporary ban is expected to last 45 days after it is passed, with the council having the option to initially extend it for 10 months and then another year after that.

Councilman Herb Wesson signaled his support for a ban.

"Not in L.A., not in one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, cities in this country will we sit idly by and let this happen," Wesson said. "It amazes me that any company would want to do this, already knowing that our Planning Department is working on a permanent ordinance to make sure that this does not occur."

The council voted last year to create an ordinance that would ban the construction and operation of private detention facilities in Los Angeles, but the new version includes all types of immigrant holding facilities. VisionQuest typically operates housing and services for youths who have been assigned to the company by a judge or foster services.

Martinez introduced a motion in November seeking information from the city's Planning Department and City Attorney's Office on the proposed Arleta location and the site's zoning in an effort to determine if the area is suitable for the project.

On Jan. 6, a group of protesters and several local elected officials took part in a rally at the proposed site at 9120 Woodman Ave. The vacant, two-story building was formerly s senior living facility, according to Martinez.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in October that bans the establishment of private detention facilities from operating in the state.