A sprawling, privately run detention center in Adelanto, California’s windswept desert town, could house nearly 2,000 migrants facing deportation. However, it is nearly empty these days.

The Adelanto facility is an extreme example of how the United States government’s use of guaranteed minimum payments in contracts with private companies to house immigrant detainees may have a financial impact. The government agrees to pay for a certain number of beds, whether or not they are used, in these contracts.

The government pays for at least 1,455 beds per day at Adelanto, but the average daily population so far this fiscal year is 49 detainees. According to immigrant advocates, the number of detainees at Adelanto is now closer to a dozen because authorities are unable to bring in more migrants due to a federal judge’s 2020 pandemic-related ruling.

The US government pays to ensure that 30,000 immigration detention beds are available in four dozen facilities across the country, but according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, only about half of them have been occupied so far this fiscal year. Over the last two years, immigration detention facilities throughout the United States have been underutilized as authorities have been forced to space out detainees — in some cases, such as at Adelanto, by court order — in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

According to official data, the guaranteed minimum at a facility in Tacoma, Washington, is 1,181 beds, and the average daily population so far this fiscal year is 369. Jena, Louisiana, detention center has a minimum of 1,170 beds and a daily population of 452.

According to official data, ICE currently has 23,390 detainees in custody. According to a Government Accountability Office report focused on the years preceding the pandemic, the agency has long spent money on unused detention space by including guaranteed minimum payments in its contracts. According to the report, the minimum number of beds guaranteed by the government increased by 45 percent between the 2017 fiscal year and May 2020.

Officials stated in annual budget documents that the agency aims to use 85 percent to 90 percent of detention space overall, and that it pays to have guaranteed minimum beds ready to go in case they are needed. Officials stated that flexibility is required to deal with emergencies or sudden large increases in border crossings. They stated that safety and security are the top priorities at the detention centers, while acknowledging that the pandemic has “significantly reduced bed utilization.”

Immigrant advocates argue that the pandemic proves that the United States does not need to detain immigrants as much as authorities claim. Instead of locking people up, deportation agents have increased their use of a monitoring app to keep tabs on immigrants heading for deportation hearings. According to government data, the agency was tracking more than 200,000 people using the SmartLink app as of June.

The Adelanto facility, run by The Geo Group of Boca Raton, Florida, is one of the largest in the country and frequently houses immigrants arrested in the greater Los Angeles area. Detainees have long complained about poor medical care, and inspectors discovered nooses in detainee cells and overly restrictive segregation during a 2018 visit.

Immigrant advocates filed a lawsuit shortly after COVID-19 went into effect, citing safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter barred ICE from accepting new detainees and set a cap of 475 detainees. He directed that detainees be separated and have enough space to stretch, walk, use the restroom, and shower, and he noted that an unknown number of staff and detainees were not wearing masks.

According to Thomas P. Giles, ICE’s field office director for enforcement and removal operations in greater Los Angeles, limited local bed space means that some immigrants detained in Southern California may be transferred elsewhere.

The Department of Justice runs immigration courts in Adelanto, where detainees’ deportation cases are heard. Due to dwindling numbers at the desert facility, judges in these courtrooms are currently hearing cases of immigrants from other parts of the country via video, according to Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.