The Department of Homeland Security has been processing illegal immigrants in a dangerous California building for years despite knowing it to be a deadly fire hazard, the department’s inspector general said Friday in a memo that said it had ordered the facility shut down immediately.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that runs the facility, said in a statement it was shutting the building down by Friday evening, and it would remain closed until it’s repaired.
The San Pedro Service Processing Center was temporarily shut down in 2007 for its fire problems, and the agency apparently knew some of them weren’t fixed when it moved back in a year later.
As a result, employees and illegal immigrants have been in a building that doesn’t have working fire alarms and where the sprinkler system has corroded through and hasn’t been inspected or tested for at least five years, investigators said.
“This system is an urgent life safety issue that poses an immediate danger,” Inspector General John Roth said in an emergency management alert dated Thursday and released to the public Friday morning.
Mr. Roth said they were informed ICE was processing and temporarily detaining immigrants at the facility — something his investigators verified in a visit Monday.
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, said that while immigrants are processed, they aren’t being housed there.
“We do not detain aliens at that facility, and have not since 2007,” she said.
In a statement, ICE said it “takes the welfare of its employees very seriously” and wants to make sure they and those “for whom it is responsible” are safe.
“The San Pedro building will not be used for any purpose until the facility has been deemed appropriate for occupancy,” the agency said. In the statement, ICE said it has about 35 law enforcement officers who work at the building, and they would all be relocated by the close of business Friday.
The building’s problems had been cited by the Army Corps of Engineers as far back as October 2012, and in 2013 the Corps said the building should be shut down. But ICE didn’t comply, and as of this week ICE agents were still using the building as office space and to process and detain illegal immigrants, the inspector general said.
The inspector general said when it contacted ICE’s facilities office about the programs, the agency didn’t cooperate and instead questioned why investigators were looking into the safety problems.
Eventually, ICE officials told investigators they had a contract in place to make repairs, but the inspector general said the building should be shut down in the meantime. Finally, ICE said it would move employees out of the building.
The San Pedro facility has a history of problems. In 2007 ICE unexpectedly shut down most of the facility because of safety problems, including the sprinkler system, and sent hundreds of illegal immigrants being held at the building to other locations, the Los Angeles Times reported. The paper said the agency didn’t give many of the immigrants’ lawyers notice, causing confusion.
In 2008 ICE moved back in to part of the building, the inspector general said.
ICE said it’s already been working with the local fire marshal’s office to work out a mitigation plan, and said the fire marshal never recommended the building be vacated.
ICE has regularly battled immigrant rights advocates over the conditions at its detention facilities — particularly over whether they were appropriate for caring for whole families of illegal immigrants. In 2009 ICE closed one such facility in Texas after the ACLU sued, charging conditions didn’t meet standards.
The closure of that facility left the government unprepared when a new surge of families from Central America overloaded authorities this past summer, and ICE scrambled to open a new holding facility in Artesia, New Mexico, which has similarly faced accusations of poor conditions.