By Patrick Michels.
One day in May, Jeremias Estrada left his wife behind in Mexico and crossed the international bridge from Tijuana to the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. Estrada walked right into the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol, just as he’d planned, and requested asylum.
Estrada was one of dozens of asylum seekers to cross that day. They arrived as a group to avoid being turned away by border agents on the bridge, a violation of international law that has become increasingly common since Donald Trump became president. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might have let Estrada live in freedom until his date with a judge. But under Trump, ICE has been placing far more asylum seekers in detention.
Most members of Estrada’s group were sent to Adelanto, California, a remote High Desert town where The GEO Group runs a private detention center. Estrada and three other men were taken into the heart of Orange County. There, he caught a glimpse of the good life he was hoping to enjoy in the U.S. At the last intersection of the journey, a left turn would have taken him down Style Street, to an outdoor mall with a 30-screen multiplex.
Instead, Estrada’s bus turned right down Justice Center Way. That road ends at the maximum-security 3,442-bed Theo Lacy Facility, the county jail where he’d live until his case was resolved or ICE moved him. At night, the bright sign of a restaurant across the street shined through a cellblock window, reminding Estrada and his bunkmates of how close they were.
Why did Estrada end up in a county jail in suburbia? The short answer is money – the county has a contract with the federal government to hold immigrants. The longer answer touches on the culture of Orange County, the nation’s sixth most populous, a collection of cities and towns led by officials who pride themselves on safety, law and order. While California is positioning itself as an unapologetic sanctuary state, Orange County remains an island: ICE’s enthusiastic partner.