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Yolo County to end federal contract housing immigrant teens at local detention center

Yolo County will terminate its decade-old contract with federal immigration authorities to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers in a high-security detention center in Woodland.

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to end the contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, ending a months-long saga over whether the county’s juvenile detention facility — one of two high-security centers in the nation for unaccompanied minors who “pose a danger to self or others” — should continue to house and serve up to 24 teenagers.

The detention center since 2008 has housed about 800 teenagers who entered the country without a parent, most coming from Central America and Mexico. But in recent years, the teens entering the program have been increasingly exhibiting harder to manage mental illnesses, having been subjected to significant trauma and community violence, which require specialized therapeutic resources.

For months, supervisors and other county officials have been contemplating ending the contract. In addition to growing strains on staff, some officials have worried about being associated with the Trump administration’s policies on the detainment of asylum-seeking migrant youths at the border.

“It’s been a difficult dance” working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said Supervisor Gary Sandy. The federal agency houses about 10,000 unaccompanied youths in homes, shelters and detention centers across the U.S.

Officials have also argued that the detention center, which is nearly empty, could be better utilized given the cost and size of maintaining the facility. The 90-bed center housed fewer than 17 youths — migrant teens and local juvenile offenders combined — per day in the first three months of the year.

Proposals such as using the detention center’s often-vacant booking space to temporarily house adult inmates from the nearby jails, or eventually turning the detention facility into a transitional program for people ages 18-25, are still on the table but have not been finalized.

“We have a responsibility to our own youth,” said Supervisor Jim Provenza. “We have other demands for needs and space. This seems to be a crossroads where it makes sense to me not to renew.”

In 2019, the facility received a $6.7 million grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement for unaccompanied minors. With the ending of the contract and loss of grant funding, the county estimates about 22 layoffs within the probation department.

Last month, an average of 10 unaccompanied minors lived at the detention center on any given day. Teens stay an average of about 54 days, which officials say should be enough time to transfer them before the contract ends Jan. 31.

Until then, the county and the Office of Refugee Resettlement will work together to ensure teens leaving the program have a “soft landing,” such as being transferred to a lower level detention facility, released to a sponsor or sent back to their home country.

During the meeting, several residents asked the county to continue operating the center, arguing the unaccompanied minors would be in better hands locally than at a different unknown center. Ending the contract “doesn’t stop these kids from being incarcerated, it gets them out of Yolo County,” said Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network’s David Lichtenhan.

“By washing our hands of this, we’re not giving the kids anything better,” said Alison Pease, who has volunteered at the juvenile hall more than a decade, at the meeting. She said the teenagers “are refugees from extreme violence, extreme poverty. They come here out of desperation, and they come here with hope.”

Still, most supervisors — excluding Oscar Villegas, who recused himself because he works with the Board of State and Community Corrections — had already made up their minds.

“I wish we could make it work, but it just doesn’t sound like it’s working,” said Supervisor Duane Chamberlain. “It just doesn’t sound like it’s working like it should, and that’s all I can comment at this point.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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